Sunday, February 22, 2004

Hicks' hustle saves UC


Turns an ugly game into a beautiful win

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When your season is on the brink and the win you earn is an artistic mudpie, so what? Bad basketball can produce good results. The men on The Committee will gather with their facts and figures in three weeks, and all they will see is that on Feb. 21, UC beat Louisville, the 10th-ranked team in America. No one will count style points.

What a beautiful ugly game. Anybody make a shot yet?

Field Williams made one, a season-saver from the left wing with an eyeblink left in regulation. Williams was so convinced he'd won the game with a 3-pointer, he ran to the press table and slapped palms with Dick Vitale. As it was, all the shot did was send the game to overtime.

Francisco Garcia made one. He made many. The Louisville sophomore nearly beat the Bearcats by himself. That would have been heroic for him and tragic for the 'Cats. Garcia was playing on two bad ankles. When you lose a big game at home to a guy on two bad wheels, the next sound you hear is your season circling the drain.

PHOTO GALLERY
photo gallery
10 photos of Saturday's game
Eric Hicks made one. Believe it or not. Actually, he made two in overtime, both huge. In a game as messy as this, you guessed Hicks would have a big, dirty hand in the outcome. Hicks, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound sophomore, has the sort of intangibles a team needs to win.

He plays with his sleeves rolled up. He's quick and beastly. On the defensive end, Hicks could almost be Kenyon Martin, if he didn't smile so much. Martin smiled once a month, and then only when he was eating small forwards. On Saturday, Hicks offered a dose of will and soul, when that was all that mattered.

"When Eric comes with energy, Eric's a very good player," UC coach Bob Huggins said.

"If I wasn't doing that, I'd probably be shooting the ball," Hicks said.

"That might not be a good idea," someone suggested.

"I averaged 31 in high school, man. Thirty-one, 12 and seven," Hicks said. Points, rebounds, blocked shots. He's at seven points, six rebounds and almost two blocks a game now.

"If you tried a 3-pointer now, Huggins would yank you so fast, you'd need a neck brace," Hicks was told.

"Awww, man," Hicks said.

Someone asked him whom he could beat in a free-throw shooting contest. Hicks is hitting 50 percent of his foul shots and was 4-for-9 Saturday.

"Whooo," Hicks said. "I'd beat Huggs. Definitely."

To which Huggins replied, "Eric doesn't want to bet his scholarship money. Trust me."

Regardless, when UC plays the way it has in the last month, energy is its only constant. The shooting is spotty, the defense aggravates the coach. The focus tends to wander. The will to win can be the Bearcats' only friend. That's where Hicks comes in.

On Saturday, UC and Louisville combined to miss 43 of their first 55 shots. The Cardinals' three best players didn't have two good legs between them. Garcia has two sprained ankles and Luke Whitehead has one. Taquan Dean has a pulled groin. Whitehead was the best player on the court when Louisville beat UC a month ago. He didn't even play Saturday.

UC played with a bruised psyche and strained confidence. The result was two teams on a blue highway, looking for the main road. "We knew if we lost today, we were done," Tony Bobbitt said.

UC found the road, at least for a day, thanks to Hicks, who came to play: Ten points, 14 rebounds, six blocks, in just 26 minutes.

It was a mess, yes. Better to win the mess than not win the mess.

"I can shoot the ball, now," Hicks said.

Don't get any ideas, Eric. Just keep coming with that heart.

---

E-mail pdaugherty@enquirer.com




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