GLENDALE, Ariz. —As he stood on the court at the end of his third-to-last game in a North Carolina uniform, Isaiah Hicks smiled and laughed and acknowledged he'd performed terribly. On Monday night, having made the shot of his life in the NCAA championship game, a shot that actually will place him into the same sentence as Michael Jordan for the remainder of Tar Heel history, he wept.
Sports can be tricky that way.
“That was the best feeling ever,” Hicks said on the basketball floor at University of Phoenix Stadium, standing in a pile of Carolina-blue-and-white confetti that fell from the ceiling well after he provided the one brilliant moment of North Carolina’s 71-65 victory against Gonzaga. “That was the first time I cried in years. I was very emotional. It took us four years, but we finally did it.”
Just as Jordan’s shot was not a buzzer-beater in the 1982 title-game win over Georgetown, Hicks’ moment of eternal glory came with 27 seconds to play against Gonzaga. There was time following his shot for the Bulldogs to do something to reverse the outcome; that dissolved less comically than in ’82 but just as tragically for the Zags.
There wasn’t a lot Gonzaga could have done, though, to stop the play that Hicks made that made him a hero. As the shot clock dwindled inside 15 seconds, with the Tar Heels ahead by a single point, every offensive action was appropriately managed by the defense.
Point guard Joel Berry was closely watched by Josh Perkins, who gave him no direction to drive. Forward Justin Jackson curled around the top of the key to take a pass from Berry, but guard Silas Melson was close enough to smell his chewing gum. Hicks was able to accept a bounce pass at the foul line with his back to the basket, but Johnathan Williams was nearby and offering few options. Hicks faced up, then began a right-handed drive after Williams took a swipe at the ball, but Williams stayed in the play with a forearm at Hicks’ hip. As Hicks bounced the ball, Melson was close enough to dig but stayed home with Jackson, fearful of giving up a backdoor cut or open jumper. This was going to stay between Hicks, Williams, the ball and the goal.
Oh, and gravity. And the backboard. There were so many variables.
“J3 is a good defender. We trust him one-on-one,” Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd told Sporting News. “The kid made an unbelievable play. How often does a guy making a hanging, one-hand, double-clutch shot? He made the play. Good for him.”
Hicks took two dribbles, covered about two-thirds of the distance to the rim, slid into a jump stop and then launched himself toward the roof. Williams jumped with him, his left arm stretched above the rim. Hicks held onto the ball, though, until Williams began his descent. Hicks bent his left leg to give himself more time in the air, then let go of the ball when he had a clear view. His one-handed half-hook banked off the glass and into the net.
Isaiah Hicks finishes strong at the rim on the key shot. (Getty Images)
“He made a better play than I did, so … “ Williams told Sporting News. “I wasn’t expecting help. He just made a better play. That’s all.”
Until Monday night, about the only thing memorable about Hicks’ 2017 NCAA Tournament was that it would not end. A 6-9, 242-pound power forward from Oxford, N.C., Hicks did not reach double-figure scoring against any of the four high-major opponents the Heels had played in the NCAAs. He shot 31 percent in those games. In the harrowing victory over Kentucky in the South Region final, he had to yield his position after just 20 minutes to sophomore Luke Maye, who hit the game-winningshot to get the Tar Heels to the Final Four. Hicks said he had to thank Maye from saving him from his dreadful performance.
Hicks was even worse in the tournament semifinal against Oregon, making just 1 of 12 from the field. Against the Zags, though, with Justin Jackson admittedly “a little bit” overhyped and enduring a 6-of-19 shooting performance, and with center Kennedy Meeks in foul trouble and limited to 20 minutes and just sevenpoints, Carolina could not have afforded another such performance from its starting power forward.
Hicks rose from his own NCAA ashes and gave the Heels 13 points, ninerebounds and the play that pushed the lead beyond Gonzaga’s reach. He didn’t see it as Jordanesque, but then, he didn’t see it. He was in it. When he looks at it on tape, and one assumes he will look at it many times, he will come to understand its artistic merit and historic consequence.
“I really didn’t think it was that big,” Hicks said. “You know, right now I feel like Luke hit the biggest shot. He got us here after a tough fight with Kentucky. I felt like my shot was just one of many.”
It wasn’t one of that many. “There was a lot of ups and downs; 26 for 73 (UNC as a team Monday), I don’t think you should win any game shooting like that,” Jackson said. “But those last threeminutes, we made some huge plays.”
There was time for Gonzaga to search for a tying 3-pointer or a basket to cut the Heels’ lead, but point guard Nigel Williams-Goss drove too desperately into the lane and was blocked by Meeks. That was technically the game-clincher.
There was no bigger play, though, than the shot by Hicks. If you favor a certain shade of light blue, it was beautiful enough to make you cry.