Eastern Kentucky forward Darius Hicks said in the preseason that he was going to make the most of his opportunity to play after sitting out for two years.
During the regular season-opener against Chattanooga on Tuesday at McBrayer Arena, the redshirt junior made good on that statement.
After trailing the Mocs 38-33 at halftime, the 6-foot-8 forward was crucial to getting EKU back on top in the opening minutes of the second half when the Colonels raced out on a blistering 15-0 run.
Hicks drew a foul in the opening minutes under the basket, sank both free throws and then fought through defenders under the net to get a layup.
That strong second half start helped boost the Colonels to a 79-68 victory on Tuesday night at McBrayer and their first win of the season.
Hicks performance earned him a double-double — knocking down a team second-best 18 points and grabbing 12 rebounds — while also blocking three shots.
“I put in some hard work… It’s been pretty much two years that I haven’t played. It felt great to be back out their playing basketball,” Hicks said after the game.
Hamilton also praised the newcomer's performance on Tuesday.
“You look at the game and you say ‘Darius Hicks’ and you just say ‘wow.’ You saw him in the scrimmage and the exhibition game against Berea and you are waiting for this eruption, because all I do is hype him up and talk about him so much. He is going to be that good for us … He is tough to guard… He is powerful and athletic and knows how to play,” EKU coach A.W. Hamilton said after the game.
In the first half, the Colonels used an 11-0 run to take the lead but fell behind after Jomaru Brown and Tre King picked up two quick fouls.
Houston King, who was the team’s leading scorer on Tuesday with a career-best 19 points and was 4-of-5 from beyond the arc, kept the Colonels afloat with some clutch shooting.
Hamilton credited the sophomore with stepping up when the Colonels started to wane under the Mocs 10-2 run.
“We just got more balance (this season.) Even when Jomaru got those two fouls in the first half, we didn’t panic. Houston King gets us going and we get to stay in the game...When we needed to make some shots… He really stepped up and played well, ” Hamilton noted.
Hicks had back-to-back lay-ups and was able to tie the game up with 3:50 left in the first half to make it 31-31.
However, A.J. Caldwell drained a three-pointer and then Ramon Vila got a lay-up to push Chattanooga back out to five before halftime, 38-33.
Hamilton said he made a powerful speech in the locker room to get his guys moving in the second half.
“He told us to get back to playing our style of basketball We were kind of getting away from us and he told us to just play us and do what we do best,” Hicks said of Hamilton’s remarks to the players at halftime.
“We went on 15-0 run to start the second half. It was a good speech,” the coach said with a laugh.
After Hicks scored the first four points, Houston King exploded for nine points in three and a half minutes. His three-pointer at the 18:56 mark put the Colonels ahead 40-38.
EKU never looked back after that.
Houston King made two more three-pointers, the second with 15:33 left in the game, and pushed it to a 10-point margin, 48-38, to cap the 15-0 run.
“I thought the second half, we came out and played great. You could see our conditioning payed off. We were really able to get our press going… We found the (Chattanooga) shooters and made them take tougher shots. Our conditioning really payed off. We were really able to sprint out the traps and close back in on them,” Hamilton said after the game.
Houston King also noted that the Mocs started to tire mid-way through the Colonels scoring spurt.
“Half-way through the second half, we started to out-work them, because we had that much more in the tank,” King said.
Brown, who came off the bench in the second half after being in foul trouble, scored eight points in three minutes to make it 73-60 with two minutes left in the game.
The sophomore guard, who scored 14 points during the win, said the team is more comfortable with the fast tempo and it showed on Tuesday.
“We are way more conditioned. Way ahead of how we were last year,” Brown acknowledged.
The Colonels shot 60 percent (15-for-25) in the second half and 52 percent for the game. UTC made just 32 percent of its shots from the field. EKU held a 40-34 advantage in rebounding, but lost the turnover battle 24-20.
EKU will make the short trip to Lexington on Friday to play No. 2-ranked Kentucky. Tip-off in Rupp Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m.