GLENDALE — In a national championship game that will be remembered more for its missed shots and free throws, it was the bounce back performance of North Carolina senior forward Isaiah Hicks that helped lead the Tar Heels to their third national championship under head coach Roy Williams.
Hicks, who was in a rut the past four games, returned to form on the biggest stage in UNC’s 71-65 win over Gonzaga at University of Phoenix Stadium Monday night.
Despite UNC shooting only 35.6 percent from the field and making just 15-of-26 free throws, it was Hicks who had the shot of the night.
With North Carolina leading by one with 26 seconds left in the game, Hicks’ floater in the paint pushed UNC’s lead to 68-65. Gonzaga called a timeout and the Tar Heels never looked back, winning their sixth NCAA title.
“All I know is the clock is running down and we needed a shot and I just took it,” Hicks said on the court during UNC’s postgame celebration. “I felt like nothing was going to stop me from making that. This was it and I felt like we worked hard for this moment and it was about time.”
UNC junior forward Justin Jackson said Gonzaga was playing good defense on Hicks, but Hicks was just a little better, giving North Carolina the late-game shot it needed to ultimately get redemption after losing the championship game last year to Villanova, 77-74, on a three pointer at the buzzer by the Wildcats’ Kris Jenkins.
“Isaiah just had a little more bounce to him than whoever was guarding him had,” Jackson said. “He held it a little bit and then finally got up on the glass and we see that all the time in practice, but that was a huge shot for us.”
Hicks finished the night with 13 points and nine rebounds, his first game scoring in double-digits since UNC’s first round game against No.16 Texas Southern when he scored 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field.
Before Monday’s contest, Hicks only averaged six points over in the previous four games. In UNC’s 77-76 semifinal win over Oregon on Saturday, he only had two points on 1-of-12 shooting from the field.
“I got questions after last game,” Hicks said. “I was 1 for 12 and people asked me if I was frustrated and I said, ‘No I was just trying.’ That’s all I could do. Regardless of what happens all you can do is try.
“I just wanted to win this. This is my last college game win or lose, and I felt like I had to leave everything out there and I’m thanking God I did.”
UNC’s senior power forward Kennedy Meeks said he wasn’t surprised by Hicks’ performance.
“I know the type of player he is,” Meeks said. “He’s my close friend. We have been friends for a long time and I know when it’s a big-time moment he will step up. You saw the layup he had. Those other games it might not have fell for him out of frustration, ball not going in the basket. To see him make that is big time. Isaiah is definitely a silent leader and you can see that by the way he played tonight.”
Williams said on Sunday he really thought Hicks was going to have a good game against Oregon, but after Hicks’ first shot was blocked and he missed a wide-open second shot, he tried to “rush everything a little bit and it sort of snowballed on him.”
Williams said he was hoping things would change Monday night, and they did.
“Isaiah, my boy has been struggling like a dog, but tonight he looked like a greyhound there a couple of times there at the end,” Williams said. “Told him this morning, your last high school game you won the state championship. And he had like 34 points, 30 rebounds. I told him I would take that tonight. He didn’t really give that to us, but he was big for us and made a couple of big, big baskets down the stretch.”
But despite the late-game heroics from UNC, both teams shot poorly from the field. The Tar Heels shot 35.6 percent, while Gonzaga shot 33.9 percent.
“I don’t care what we shot,” Meeks said. “We won the game, man.”
Hicks’ heroics were followed by the big-time play of Meeks, who blocked the shot of Gonzaga’s junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss that would have cut UNC’s lead to a mere one point with 16 seconds left on the clock.
After Meeks’ block, UNC junior point guard Joel Berry II got the ball and kicked it out to Justin Jackson, who made the exclamation dunk with 12 seconds left on the clock to give UNC a 70-65 lead. Jackson finished with 16 points on 6-of-19 shooting from the field.
And Meeks wasn’t done on defense.
On Gonzaga’s next possession, he forced a turnover by Gonzaga’s senior center Przemek Karnowski, stealing the ball away for his second steal of the night. Gonzaga fouled Berry, who made one of two free throws with seven seconds left for the Tar Heels last points of the night.
“I do that all the time in practice where I hide I guess you could say,” Meeks said about the steal. “I’m a pretty big person so to say I can hide behind someone is a lot, but I hid behind whoever it was in front of me and I got the steal and I tried to kick it up the court as fast as I could.”
After Meeks was the first player with 25 points and 10 rebounds in a Final Four game since Greg Oden (2007) in UNC’s matchup against Oregon, Meeks scored a subpar 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting from the field, but pulled down 10 rebounds to set a new single-tournament record on the glass with 69 over the course of six games.
Meeks picked up his fourth foul with 9:42 left in the second half, but a seasoned UNC team comprised of 10 players returning from last year’s title game helped the Tar Heels keep their composure.
Berry scored 22 points on 7-of-19 shooting after battling a bad ankle throughout the tournament.
“I felt like Joel was due for something big,” Hicks said. “He was really fighting through all the injuries he had through these previous games you know he really came out and played his heart out and that’s what we needed.”
UNC had the numbers stacked against them at halftime. The Tar Heels shot just 30.6 percent in a first half that included three separate three-minute scoring droughts.
“I jumped on them at the first of the half and I told the staff I was going to, but I was going to try to give them something at the end,” Williams said. “And I tried to be more positive and I told them, last year we were ahead at halftime and the other team came out more focused than we did. So it was our job to come out more focused than Gonzaga.”
At halftime, UNC was getting outrebounded 25-23. The three previous times the Tar Heels were outrebounded in a game this season, they lost.
But Monday night, they got the win, and with it a blue and white confetti celebration that they narrowly missed out on last season.
“Based on what we went through a year ago and through this year, it’s unbelievable,” Jackson said. “I can’t even. I don’t know what it would have felt like if we didn’t make it last year. But right now, it’s all types of emotions going on right now. Sad that it’s over. Happy that we won. Excited we are national champions. Excited to spend this time with my brothers. Any emotion you name, it’s going through my head right now.”