CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After a solid start to his senior season, Isaiah Hicks had been relatively quiet since No. 11 North Carolina’s return from the Hawaiian islands. He was aggressive from the tip on Saturday, scoring 10 of his 22 points in UNC’s first 15 possessions.
“Isaiah set the tone,” junior point guard Joel Berry told reporters after UNC’s 96-83 win over No. 9 Florida State. “He was out there attacking.”
Hicks set career highs in both made free throws (12) and free throw attempts (14), marking the most by a Tar Heel since Brice Johnson attempted 16 free throws against the Seminoles last January.
“For him to shoot 14 free throws, that obviously shows that he wasn’t shooting jump shots but trying to get to the rim,” junior wing Justin Jackson said.
The Oxford, N.C. native, who added seven rebounds despite being limited to 22 minutes due to foul trouble, had averaged 10.2 points per game during a 10-game stretch before scoring 16 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the win over Wake Forest on Wednesday.
“I was just attacking what they gave me,” Hicks said.
Hicks scored six points off three of his four offensive rebounds, and set up Berry for a score on the fourth.
“In the first half we were in the game because of our offensive rebounding,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “That was really about it. It’s what we were getting. Isaiah made a couple of those that were really good. Isaiah’s a really good player, he’s just got to relax a little bit more and be Isaiah.”
That last comment was repeated in various forms during the postgame interviews in the players’ lounge.
“He was just being aggressive and being the Isaiah that we know,” Berry said. “That’s what he does in practice and we’re trying to get him to translate that over to the game. He did that tonight, and that’s what we need from him each and every game.”
Jackson agreed, saying, “That’s definitely the Isaiah we see each and every day.”
Transitioning from the practice court to live game situations is typically a process that comes to fruition during the early years of a college career, although it hasn’t been that simple for Hicks, who is known in media circles for his politeness and soft-spoken demeanor.
When asked about the difficulty in playing like he practices, a grinning Hicks replied, “It shouldn’t be.”
“A lot of people say you shouldn’t practice harder than you play,” he continued. “I guess everybody is pretty excited because they’re finally seeing me play like I practice.”
His continued evolution is a vital part of UNC’s potential national championship run. Not only was Hicks effective on the offensive glass against the Seminoles, he was also able to utilize his athleticism out of the high post. He picked up two early fouls on FSU post players by taking his defender off the dribble and working his way to the basket.
According to Hicks, when he’s in the high post, assistant coach Steve Robinson consistently preaches for him to first look for Kennedy Meeks on the block, and if his teammate is not in position, he has to be willing to take his man off the dribble.
“Coach really challenged me after last year,” Hicks said. “He said, ‘really work on it, because this year you never know what type of situation you will be in.’ From the high post, you’ve got to be able to take your man off the drive and knock down the shot.”
Hicks did just that on Saturday, which helped him tie his career high in points on just seven field goal attempts.