Justin Jackson missed his first shot on Friday night, a 3-pointer that bounced high off the rim, and for a moment it felt like everything that had gone wrong for him in recent weeks might continue. The pressure had seemed to build, after all, with every miss.
These had been long, mentally grueling weeks for Jackson, the North Carolina junior wing forward. Since he’d received ACC Player of the Year honors, something went missing and something looked different, and Jackson entered the NCAA tournament seeking once again to play like himself – to feel like himself.
And so here he was after the Tar Heels’ 103-64 victory against Texas Southern, describing a bit of a personal renaissance. Jackson finished with 21 points and made five 3-pointers and for now, at least, all of the pressure that had built had dissipated. This was a return to normalcy.
“It’s big,” Jackson said afterward, feeling the release. “Any time you make a shot, it feeds into your confidence a little bit more. … For me, I’ve tried to get myself into the gym as much as possible after the ACC tournament.
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“And try to get back to feeling the same way I felt on my shot, and everything like that.”
This was only one game. It was a colossally one-sided game, a mismatch with UNC owning an advantage in size and skill everywhere, with the exception of the pep band. Texas Southern’s Ocean of Soul, the brass blaring throughout, put on a show of its own, at times.
As fleeting a 40 minutes as these were, though, they were equally important, given the stakes. The Tar Heels, the top seed in the South Region, are onto the second round of the NCAA tournament, where they’ll play against No. 8 seed Arkansas on Sunday. And Jackson looks like himself again.
“Everybody panics when somebody is having an off day, multiple off days,” junior point guard Joel Berry said, “but that’s just part of the game. Sometimes it doesn’t go in for you and just seeing (Jackson’s) 3s go down tonight, it was pretty good. And I have confidence in him no matter what.”
It had been awhile. And so when Roy Williams, the UNC coach, was asked afterward about what pleased him most on Friday, his answer came quickly. Williams could have talked about a lot of things – rebounding and defense and putting an over-matched team away early.
First, though, Williams talked about Jackson. This is what UNC had been missing for four games.
“For Justin to see the ball go in the basket – I mean, he did,” Williams said. “He just put too much pressure on himself and tried to do too much possibly, which you love that, you like a guy that tries to step up. But I’d say that would be the biggest thing.”
After Jackson missed that first 3-pointer, he made his next five 3-point attempts. By halftime he had scored 19 of his 21 points, and at times he’d treated the court at Bon Secours Wellness Arena as though it was the site of a personal, one-man shooting competition.
The five 3s that Jackson made were only two fewer than he made in his previous four games combined. He’d entered the NCAA tournament in an uncommon shooting funk – uncommon for him this season, that is – in which he’d missed 24 of his past 31 3-point attempts.
The problems began during UNC’s ugly 53-43 loss at Virginia on Feb. 27, when the Cavaliers’ point guard, London Perrantes, hounded Jackson throughout. Jackson that night had little room to move, little room to roam. The next three games brought no relief.
Midway through that four-game stretch, Jackson learned he’d received ACC Player of the Year honors. It was cause for celebration, and indeed Jackson celebrated the news with his family, which happened to be in Chapel Hill when Jackson learned he’d won. And yet there was another side of it, too.
After he won player of the year, Jackson heard whispers, rumblings. He heard the criticism.
He knew some didn’t think he deserved it. He tried to prove himself worthy.
“People are going to say other people should have gotten awards, whatever,” Jackson said on Friday. “I earned it. And so at the end of the day I’ve got to play like the person that I was to earn that award, and not the person that’s trying to show people why I got it.”
For a little while that was part of Jackson’s struggle. He pressured himself into believing that he that he had to silence the critics. Earlier this week, Jackson met with Williams in the coach’s office. Williams’ advice likely won’t form the foundation of any best-sellers, or leadership seminars.
Jackson, though, needed to hear the words, nonetheless. On Friday he described them like this:
“Just be me.”
And what does that mean, exactly?
“Just going out there and just playing freely,” Jackson said. “Doing that and then off the court just staying true to myself, whether it’s the type of music I listen to. Reading books. Whatever it might be. Just being myself.”
Whenever Jackson fails to do that, he said, is when the trouble starts. That’s when he’s “thinking too much,” or “doing things I might not normally do.” And so Jackson recently has tried to think in a way that led to his success, and repeat the habits that created his foundation.
Reading is part of it. Jackson just started reading a new book, he said, on Thursday. It’s called “Rise,” by Trip Lee, and the summary on Amazon says it’s about living “the way we were created to live.” One night later Jackon returned to playing the way he had for most of the season.