Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Zach Hicks stood in the corner, watching the ball fly towards him — right through his hands and out of bounds for a turnover. It wasn’t exactly how the Temple freshman wanted his first shift on the college floor to go.
“It was my first game, so I had a lot of jitters out there,” Hicks admitted. “Coach always tells us ‘short-term memory,’ so I just shrugged it off and kept playing.”
Hicks didn’t need long to find redemption.
Zach Hicks (above) made a big splash in his Temple debut. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
With the Owls struggling to gain control against the visiting Hawks of Maryland-Eastern Shore, Hicks provided the spark his team needed, knocking down three second-half 3-pointers to help Temple pull away for a 72-49 win.
A 6-foot-7, 195-pound wing out of Camden Catholic (N.J.), Hicks carved a role out in the rotation during the preseason thanks to his combination of length and ability to stretch the floor out of the ‘3’ spot.
His first collegiate appearance, only a few minutes into the first half, was a clear sign that Aaron McKie intended to give Hicks a healthy dose of playing time from the get-go. But the nerves were also clear, and like many collegiate rookies, Hicks let them get the best of him initially. His coach could commiserate.
“I could just remember my first game, I was really nervous,” said McKie, who starred at Temple in the early 1990s and went on to a long NBA career. “For him, unfortunately it was just a hard pass to him in the corner and he was buried in the corner, and he missed it.
“Most guys who are shooters and shot-makers they dont’ worry about mistakes, they just keep going, and that’s what he did, he responded for us.”
The second half, indeed, went just a tad better for Hicks, and the rest of the Cherry & White.
Hicks re-entered the game with 17 minutes remaining and Temple clinging to a one-point lead against UMES (0-2), which only the night before took St. Joe’s right to the wire in a 69-67 SJU win. A couple minutes later, he found himself open outside the arc on the left wing in front of the Temple bench, and buried the shot.
Just about 90 seconds later, a second 3-pointer extended the lead to four, and the Owls were off and running.
“The team was coming back, so we needed a spark,” Hicks said. “I came out there, just wanted to play hard, and if the opportunity struck, just keep shooting the ball.”
Hicks’ shots weren’t the only important plays he made during Temple’s game-turning run. There was a smart extra pass to Khalif Battle for another triple which pushed the Owls’ lead to nine with under 12 minutes to play; another 3-pointer with eight minutes left pushed the lead to 14.
“I think Zach really started the whole run,” said Battle, who finished with a game-high 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting. “When we were getting stops and scoring, he hit some big 3s that give us some life, gave us some energy.”
Hicks also got himself in the mix defensively, forcing a number of turnovers during that stretch; later in the half, he dove on the floor to help the Owls retain possession of another loose ball.
A high-level defender in addition to a knockdown shooter?
“I don’t know about that,” McKie said with a laugh. “He’s a work in progress when it comes to that, but he was up for the challenge. The team we played against are JUCO guys, four-year, five-year guys who’ve been playing basketball, those guys are shifty and can move. It’s something he has to work on; his size and his length can help him with some smaller guys.”
Hicks finished his collegiate debut 3-of-7 overall, including 3-of-6 from 3-point range, for nine points in 15 minutes of action, with a +/- of 18, good for second on the team. He also grabbed five rebounds, dished out three assists and grabbed two steals without committing a turnover; certainly a solid all-around outing.
It helps that Hicks has put on about 20 pounds of muscle since getting to campus, he said, aided by a diet of protein shakes and a training regimen developed by Allen Son, the school’s new Director of Men’s Basketball Sports Performance.
The boost Hicks provided the Owls lasted the remainder of the second half, which ended with Temple on a 43-19 stretch to create the wide final margin. Damien Dunn complemented Battle’s scoring output with 18 of his own, as the two third-year guards combined to shoot 15-of-27 overall and 4-of-11 from 3-point range.
As a team, Temple shot 28-of-57 (49.1%) overall and 7-of-11 (31.8%) from 3-point range, but hit 56.7% (17-30) and 45.5% (5-11) in the second half.
“I thought it was just the first game home jitters, playing in front of fans at home,” McKie said. “It’s a new group of guys, young guys, a new environment for them. I want to chalk it up as having an out-of-body experience, I know for a fact that we’re much better than what we displayed in the first half, and we’re just a step slow. I thought our defense pretty much carried us until we started to make some shots.”
Hicks’ game ended much better than it began: with the clock ticking down, he came up with his second steal, feeding Battle for a wide-open dunk to delight the remainder of the crowd of 3,486.
Walking off the court, the nerves gone, Hicks is ready for more. The Owls return to action on Saturday, playing hosts to Southern Cal, and the first-game jitters are out of the way.
“It’s pretty good now — I’m very confident, walking around, smiling and stuff,” Hicks said. “Playing good is a great confidence booster.”