Halfway through the first half, the Heels looked to be on cruise control, and Tony Bradley was on his way to a true breakout performance. At one point he had seven points and seven rebounds in seven minutes of action. Some of us may have even been looking forward to resting Berry, Meeks, and Hicks in the second half in order to get healthy for Butler. But fortunately (and unfortunately), this is March.
As we all witnessed, the Razorbacks decided they are also college athletes, and they weren’t going out like a bunch of punks. Justin Jackson received that message. Justin Jackson returned that message to its sender.
Known to most national media and fans as the ACC Player of the Year, he is UNC’s highest scoring player. Considering that his final shooting line was 5-14 (3-6 from three), for 15 points, anyone watching the Heels for the first time last night might have been confused as to how he won the ACC POY. Those people are likely rookies and amateurs to the game of basketball.
It wasn’t a terrible shooting performance, but in a close ride-or-die game UNC needed and expected more. Much more. Justin Jackson delivered.
The rest of his stat line? Eight rebounds, second only Kennedy Meeks’ 11. Five assists, the most out of any player on either team. Not to mention his game-leading five steals on the defensive end. There simply was not a better, more complete player on the court.
Even more important was that he made his biggest plays when North Carolina needed him most. As he did in previous hard fought contests, if Jackson isn’t shooting as well as he would like, he helps the team in other ways. Especially at critical times. Specifically, the final 8 minutes and 57 seconds of last night’s game.
8:57 - Assist to Meeks. Tie game, 55-55.
8:32 - Steal, but missed the three-point attempt.
7:45- Hits a three-pointer to tie the game at 58.
6:22- Makes a jumper. Cuts the lead to 61-60.
5:16- Defensive rebound. Tony Bradley turns it over on the the other end. (God, he is going to be so, so, SO good).
4:20- Another steal, but commits an offensive foul. (Can’t win them all!)
2:19- Assist to Hicks. UNC cuts the lead to 65-64.
0:06- Steal. Dunk. Ballgame.
Of UNC’s final 17 points, Jackson was directly responsible, either by assist or made field goal, for 11. Sure, he had a few miscues, but on a night when the entire team was a giant turnover waiting to happen, Jackson provided a spark in every facet of the game.
Hicks was huge from the free throw line. Meeks provided yet another double-double, and if you would choose him over Jackson for this very prestigious game award I’d completely understand. Berry was inconsistent, yet stayed poised. But Justin Jackson never let his mediocre shooting effect the rest of his game. He never truly hunted his shot and never put the offense out of rhythm. By staying within his game, he allowed the Heels to stay within theirs.
To summarize: 15 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 steals.
Big play after big play. Unselfish. Tough. Gritty. Timely. If you weren’t convinced during the regular season, then last night should have erased all doubts.
We saw why Justin Jackson won ACC Player of the Year. A few more weekends like that, and we may be looking at the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Bring on Butler.