About a year ago Justin Jackson was back home in Tomball, Texas, watching the ACC tournament from afar, envisioning a night like the one he experienced Friday at the Greensboro Coliseum, where people stood and roared after he made shot after shot.
Now he stood outside the North Carolina locker room after the No. 19 Tar Heels’ 71-67 victory against Virginia in the semifinals of the ACC tournament. A mob of cameras and recorders surrounded him.
“Obviously,” Jackson said, “it’s a dream. To be able to come out here and play at the biggest stage that you can, and play well.”
There were a lot of memorable moments Friday for the Tar Heels – a lot of things they did well during their most significant victory of the season, one that sends them to the ACC tournament championship game. They defended well, usually, and held the No. 3 Cavaliers to 44.2 percent shooting.
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Offensively, UNC made 54.8 percent of its shots – a higher percentage than any Virginia opponent since November 2010. And late in the game’s most dramatic moments, the Tar Heels (24-10, 11-7) kept their poise and composure while Virginia whittled a 13-point deficit to seven and then to three and then to one.
UNC’s most significant play might have been the short, floating jump shot that junior guard Marcus Paige made in the lane with about 40 seconds left. It fell through the net as the shot clock expired, and boosted the Tar Heels’ lead back to three after Virginia (29-3, 16-2) had cut it to one.
The Tar Heels’ most significant player, though, was Jackson, who scored a team-high 22 points and made four of his five 3-pointers. Paige has made shots like the one he made in the lane in the final minute. Jackson, meanwhile, had been waiting to provide this kind of performance.
“We’re tough to beat when we’re doing that,” said Brice Johnson, the junior forward who finished with 13 points and six rebounds. “Justin’s a great kid and that’s what we really need him for. That’s what coach recruited him for.”
Jackson arrived at UNC with a shooter’s reputation. That gradually dissipated, though, during a prolonged shooting slump that left his confidence shaken.
At times earlier this season he seemed hesitant to attempt perimeter shots – he made just 11 of his first 54 3-point attempts. After Friday, Jackson has made 12 of his past 24 attempts.
The final one he made extended UNC’s lead back to 10 points after Malcolm Brogdon, who nearly brought Virginia back into the game by himself, made a 3-pointer that cut UNC’s lead to seven with 7 1/2 minutes to play.
The Cavaliers didn’t go away. Brogdon kept scoring. UNC’s margin kept shrinking.
After Virginia cut UNC’s lead to one the first time Jackson wiggled free for a layup that gave UNC a 63-60 lead with less than two minutes to play. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams spoke of the “big plays down the stretch” that his team made, and Jackson’s layup was as important as any of them.
“The little fella beside me was a big-time player for us today, there’s no question about that,” Williams said, referring to Jackson. “... I think he was phenomenal for us, and it wasn’t just threes. He kept moving without the ball, and I think he got two layups as we opened up the court.”
The Tar Heels entered the season ranked No. 6 in the nation in part because of the expectations that surrounded Jackson. He was supposed to be a capable scorer who could take the pressure off Paige, and he was supposed to be a significant part of the perimeter offense.
He was supposed to look a lot like the player he was Friday night. Yet it took some time.
During his darker moments, when his confidence waned, Jackson said he often tried to remind himself that he knew “how to shoot.”
But for the longest time the shots didn’t fall, at least not during games. Jackson kept to his routine: 30 minutes to an hour daily in the gym, practicing his shot either alone with a student manager or with Hubert Davis, an assistant coach.
He wouldn’t leave, he said, until his shot felt smooth and right, until his mechanics felt pure.
“If it doesn’t feel good,” Jackson said, “then I might be in there for a while.”
He said he felt good when he woke up on Friday. Isaiah Hicks, his roommate during the ACC tournament, didn’t notice anything especially different about Jackson on Friday, but Hicks said Jackson seemed comfortable, confident. Two characteristics that Jackson lacked at earlier points.
The game began and Jackson, who was home-schooled in Tomball and played in a high school league that featured players considerably younger than him, began to shine on the brightest stage he’d experienced. He had thought about this a year ago, back home watching this tournament, waiting for his moment.