Survival Name of Game for Hicks
Feb. 13, 2018
PRINCESS ANNE, Maryland -
Alexus Hicks began her basketball career fighting for the right to merely stay on the court. A precocious five-year-old in Raleigh, North Carolina, she noticed her older brother playing the game in the backyard with his friends. Little Alexus wandered outside to join in the fun, but big brother would have none of it, sending her back into the house.
"Me being stubborn, I used to always stay out there," said Hicks of her basketball origins on a recent episode of Hawk Talk Live. "They used to block my shots, steal the ball from me there. He just taught me how to be tough with basketball. I just fell in love with the game from there on out."
For Hicks, basketball has always been about survival. After surviving her brother's initial rebuke, she cleared every other hurdle in her way and now stands as a proud senior guard for Maryland Eastern Shore. Through 24 games of her final season in a Hawk uniform, Hicks is averaging 5.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, and two assists per game. She also continues to perform well from three-point range, shooting 31.2 percent beyond the arc.
Hicks began her basketball career in earnest at eight years old when she enrolled in a local rec league - no older brothers serving as gatekeeper this time. Basketball may have been an infatuation when she first picked up the ball, but after hoisting up a deep three and seeing it bank in, it became full-blown love.
"My grandma was in the stands when I shot that three off the backboard," said Hicks. "It was just a great feeling, and that motivated me to keep playing."
Kept playing she did, to higher and higher levels. An all-state selection as a junior, she helped Southeast Raleigh High School become a local powerhouse, going 108-9 over four years. She drew looks from several mid-major programs as she entered her senior year, but a right ankle injury scared away teams like High Point, UTEP, and Winthrop, threatening to derail a promising future.
Only two programs stuck with Hicks after her injury: Division II outfit Belmont Abbey, and Maryland Eastern Shore.
"I'm just glad (head coach Fred Batchelor) gave me a shot and didn't give up like the rest of the coaches did," said Hicks.
But it was more than just an offer that signaled to her that Princess Anne was the way to go.
"I had lost my niece (Skye) two weeks before they offered," said Hicks. "When I was coming on my visit, it was weird, cause her favorite song ("Refill" by Elle Varner) started playing once I crossed the bridge. And I knew right then that this was the school for me."
Through basketball, Hicks had now survived physical and emotional pain. Her next step would be to survive the transition from the high school game to the life of a Division I student-athlete.
Hicks got a crash course in conditioning as a freshman simply from playing behind her quick-footed seniors. The tougher challenge would be finding her way in the classroom.
"She was a young lady who was not excited or motivated about schoolwork," Batchelor said. "Over time, and with the help of our academic advisors -- particularly (former Hawks player) Talareah Campbell, she's become one of our brightest students.
"I'm really excited for her. It's challenging when you coach these kids, because you want it to all be sunshine and roses and great, and the real experience is that it's not. And the relationship you develop with them during those times really makes for the experience."
After weathering the initial storm, Hicks became an invaluable cog in the Hawks' machine during the 2014-15 campaign, but it was at Norfolk Scope Arena that she truly proved her mettle. She earned a start in Eastern Shore's upset of five-time defending champion Hampton in the MEAC quarterfinals, following that up with seven huge points off the bench as the Hawks downed Norfolk State to earn a trip to the conference championship game.
"All I can do is stay ready when my name is called and be ready to play," said Hicks, who earned Most Improved honors from her teammates partially on the back of her play on the league's biggest stage.
After upping her average from 2.8 points per game as a freshman to 3.9 as a sophomore, Hicks was truly called to do heavy lifting as a junior in 2016-17. In the MEAC season opener at North Carolina A&T, starting point guard Ciani Byrom went down with a season-ending knee injury. Hicks, the next in line on the depth chart, rose to the occasion, scoring 13 of her game-high 15 points in the second half as the Hawks upended the preseason favorites 60-57.
"I always prepare myself for moments like that," said Hicks of her ascension into the starting role. "I kept the same approach, but my confidence went to a different level, and I just knew that I had to step up to help the team."
Hicks solidified her staying power throughout the conference slate, helping Eastern Shore to road victories over the eventual MEAC regular season champions (Bethune-Cookman) and tournament champions (Hampton). She closed the season netting 12.9 points over her last seven games and led the team in both total assists (55) and steals (28). For helping the Hawks survive post-Byrom, Hicks was voted team MVP.
Senior year for Hicks has been about surviving whiplash. She started the first 10 games of the year, but was relegated to a bench role after Byrom's return to the lineup. As the Hawks' season took a nosedive at the beginning of MEAC play, Hicks got lost in a lineup shuffle and her role diminished further, shrinking to a mere four minutes off the bench on Jan. 8 against Bethune-Cookman.
"Hicks has played big roles for us throughout her four years, so she's not someone who's weary of heart," said Batchelor. "We talked about the fact that when changes have to be made, it always leaves someone out. It's not by design, but when you're losing, you start to make some changes, and she became the odd person out."
It would have been understandable for Hicks to just phone it in after such a deflation of her role late in her career, but through personal determination, not to mention the support of teammates who time and again put their trust in her, she kept her head clear for whenever her number was called. That "when" came just five days later.
"For the Savannah State game, Tori Morris just told me, `Hicks: stay ready, stay ready, stay ready.' And so when I got in, I was ready."
After sitting for the whole first half, Hicks ignited the comeback, scoring a team-best 16 points in just 14 minutes as Eastern Shore flipped a double-digit deficit into a 68-56 win in Savannah. One particular shot with under five minutes to go served as a microcosm of Hicks' whole career: an open look from the deep left wing, hard contact on the way down, a whistle, and a swish that sounded as sweet as it did when she was eight years old. Not to mention an exuberant reaction from her teammates on the bench, who had a front-row seat to their senior leader's latest big shot.
"The funny part about it is I didn't even know the shot went in," said Hicks of her clutch make that all but iced the game. "I couldn't even see the basket once it released from my hands. I was just running like, `Why is my team going so crazy right now?' The next thing I know I'm at the free throw line, so I was excited about that."
"It just goes to show you the quality of character in her that she didn't sit and sulk," said Batchelor. "We're hoping that that's something that all our kids will learn, by watching an upperclassman like that. I've been proud to coach her by the way she plays as a senior."
Hicks has since reclaimed a role in the starting lineup and is poised to finish her collegiate career on a high note, along with a long-awaited surgery on the right ankle that has nagged at her since the end of high school. In her final month she'll lay the groundwork for the future of Hawk basketball by setting an example any coach could want from a senior.
"Here is a young lady that has not gotten everything she's wanted, and to be honest with you has been playing hurt for four years," said Batchelor. "But she's never missed a practice and I think she's missed two games her whole career. Today I called her up at 6:30 in the morning to go and check in on another kid who just had surgery before I could get there.
"Sometimes you don't appreciate kids until they're gone. I've learned in my longer years to start appreciate them when they're here. She's somebody who's very valuable to our program in more ways than what the human eye can really see."
As for Hicks, who is on track to graduate this spring with a degree in Criminal Justice, she will exit Princess Anne not that different from the five-year-old who fought her brother for playing time in the backyard. She leaves behind a legacy of survival - physical and emotional, on the court and in the classroom.
"I just want to be known as a hard worker," said Hicks. "A person that never gave up, even when things weren't going their way. I want them to say, `Hicks was a great teammate. She pushed me when I was not able to push myself.'"
Hicks now prepares for a homecoming of sorts: the Hawks return to the Triangle this weekend for matchups at N.C. Central on Saturday and N.C. A&T State on Monday.
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