After combining for 20 points in his previous four games, the senior silenced his critics Saturday — finishing one point shy of his career high and tying his season high in rebounds.
“It feels like I’ve got that heavy weight off my back ...” Hicks said. “I’m just glad to be just playing the way I used to play.”
When the Tar Heels (26-6, 14-4 ACC) and Blue Devils (23-8, 11-7 ACC) last played on Feb. 9, a hamstring injury sidelined Hicks for the first time in his career. Head coach Roy Williams wouldn’t use it as an excuse after the game, but in Hicks’ absence, UNC lost the rebounding battle and subsequently lost the game.
Since then, the 6-foot-9 forward has looked lost on the court.
Four fouls in seven minutes against N.C. State in the subsequent game. A foul-ridden 14 minutes seven days after against Louisville. Two points before fouling out in an ugly loss to Virginia two games later.
The hamstring. The whistle. The loss. He couldn’t quiet his mind.
“I probably haven’t been as focused as I should have been out there,” Hicks said. “That’s when Coach pulled me aside and really talked to me.”
Days before the Duke rematch, Williams said a few words to his struggling forward to save him from his late-season spiral. Don’t worry about the injury, don’t worry about the fouls. Just play like Isaiah.
Coming into the week, the forward finally felt like himself again. On Saturday, it showed.
Offensively, Hicks made his presence known against the Blue Devils’ undersized frontcourt, taking advantage of switches and poor pick-and-roll defense by the Duke defense. The senior hit seven of his eight free throws and seven of his nine shots, and his 21 points were second on the team behind Joel Berry’s 28-point masterpiece.
On the other end, he held likely NBA lottery pick Jayson Tatum — who torched UNC in February — to a quiet 13 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
Most importantly, Hicks played 22 minutes and only committed two fouls — something he hadn’t done since a win over Pittsburgh on Jan. 31.
“He plays like that all the time in practice,” said sophomore forward Luke Maye, who guards Hicks every day in practice. “It was just great to see him play like that tonight.”
It wasn’t a performance without flaws. Williams still barked from the sidelines whenever Tatum drove untouched into the lane, and Hicks missed a two-handed dunk late in the first half that sent the ball flying 30 feet in the air.
But when the game ended, Williams didn’t have to say anything. Instead, he just looked at his senior forward and smiled.
“He just wanted me to play like myself,” Hicks said. “And I finally did it.”