By Adam Lucas
How to put this?
On Wednesday night in Carolina’s 83-74 win over Davidson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, well, uh, take it away, Roy Williams:
“Kennedy and Isaiah did absolutely nothing,” the head coach said.
To be fair, he was talking specifically about the start of the game, when the Tar Heel starters appeared to still be in study hall as exams begin in Chapel Hill. Down 10-3, Williams yanked the starters and watched his substitutes build a 15-13 lead in approximately three minutes.
So it wasn’t a highlight reel night for Meeks (nine points and seven rebounds) and Hicks (13 points and three rebounds while being limited by foul trouble). Before the game, Davidson coach Bob McKillop had marveled at Carolina’s senior post men.
“The progress that Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks have made,” McKillop said, “is magnificent.”
Sometimes that’s hard to remember when they’re having an off night, but McKillop is right. And just when it looked like his praise might have jinxed them, the pair responded with two huge plays in the game’s final two minutes.
Things had gotten tight in the Smith Center, as Davidson closed to within 76-73 after a Tar Heel defensive miscommunication with two minutes remaining.
But after Meeks had recorded an offensive rebound and drained a pair of free throws, he made perhaps the play of the game (or at least the play of the game that wasn’t made by Justin Jackson on his way to a career high-tying 27 points) when he hurled himself on top of a loose ball on the Davidson baseline. With the arrow favoring Carolina, the ensuing jump ball was a Wildcat turnover.
Meeks turned the ball over too much (three times) on Wednesday, didn't shoot well (2-for-7) and was outrebounded by Justin Jackson. But a senior knows that when nothing else is working, you can always utilize something a little less specialized--be the first one on the floor.
“I had missed a loose ball earlier that I should’ve gotten,” Meeks said. “It was a lack of hustle on that play. And you have to decide you want to play basketball. When you dive on the floor, that provides energy, and that was a time when we really needed to invest.”
Then it was Hicks’ turn. Nate Britt missed a three-pointer, but Hicks wriggled in to grab the offensive rebound—the glass being an area where the senior needs to contribute more—between a pair of Wildcats. His effort drew a foul, sending the Oxford native to the line.
Hicks has been in Chapel Hill so long perhaps you’ve forgotten that he was an unreliable free throw shooter for his first two seasons. He made 57.9% of his free throws as a freshman, and improved to 62.1% as a sophomore, but even the latter mark included a 2-for-7 performance in one game and 1-for-5 in another.
But his percentage jumped to 75.6% as a junior, and he’s hitting at an even 80 percent clip this year. His progress, as Bob McKillop might say, has been magnificent.
How did he do it?
“A lot of people say free throws are mental, and it’s definitely been my mindset,” Hicks said. “I take a different approach than I did in the past. Previously, I thought about, ‘I’ve got to make it.’ Now I focus on the process and let everything else take place. I just say, ‘Process, process,’ and I don’t worry about making it or missing it. With that mindset, if I miss it, I know why I missed it.”
The process worked. Hicks made both his free throws, giving Carolina a secure 80-73 lead with under a minute to play.
Someday, perhaps soon, the Tar Heels will have a team made up primarily of youngsters, and we’ll remember how they occasionally freak out at the end of games just like this one. It’s true that you can’t quantify experience. But experience very often looks just like Meeks and Hicks at the end of a game where they were otherwise average.
“Those last three minutes, we really got it going,” Meeks said with a grin. “Those other 37 minutes…we’ve got to keep working on that.”