Yeesh, this one is tough. Especially in close games, I like to assign game balls based at least in part on who played well down the stretch. The thing is, in this game, nobody really did. Justin Jackson and Joel Berry, the usual suspects in late-game situations, both made a big basket apiece, but were otherwise mostly invisible in the last few minutes. Kennedy Meeks, another frequent recipient of the coveted Tar Heel Blog Player of the Game award, was similarly a non-factor in the last five minutes.
Even my pick for Player of the Game, Isaiah Hicks, had some miscues in crunch time, but ultimately, he made enough plays to help his team keep some distance from the Panthers. His 18 points and team-leading (!!!) 8 rebounds paced his team throughout the game; his ability to repeatedly make timely baskets being key to the Heels’ staying ahead.
Hicks, while having played well this season, has not played up to many Carolina fans’ expectations, averaging a good-not-great 12.6 points per game and a less-than-stellar 5.4 rebounds per game. His comparative rebounding woes have
often occasionally been frustrating given his size and athleticism, so, as alluded to earlier, seeing him lead the team in rebounding is a sight for sore eyes. Scoring, obviously, doesn’t hurt either, and you can’t really argue with 6-8 from the field, 6-8 from the line, and 18 points (over 2 points per shot).
It was the timing and manner of the shots that really stood out, though. A standout was a drive from the left wing, outside the three point wing, where he took the ball in, drew a foul on Michael Young, and finished the play anyways with his left hand, extending the Carolina lead to 9. It is also worth noting that Hicks played 33 minutes and only committed two personal fouls.
Just like the rest of his teammates, though, Hicks had some blights on Tuesday night. He did not always stick to the perimeter on defense, allowing several open three-pointers against a team that is very capable of shooting from behind the arc. He also did not always go up with the ball as strongly as one might like, needing to settle for free throws or occasionally losing the ball out of bounds (he only had one turnover, but in several cases this was due to a teammate recovering or Pittsburgh knocking it out of bounds.
I’d like to see more finishing of opportunities from Hicks in the murderer’s row that the Heels have coming up in February. At the end of the day, though, Hicks scored efficiently and rebounded very well, exactly what we’ve all been asking of him, and deserves Tuesday’s game ball.
Joel Berry, PG
Justin Jackson, SF