Here was Justin Jackson, the North Carolina junior wing forward and the ACC Player of the Year, sitting in front of his locker on Friday night after the Tar Heels' 93-83 loss against Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals. He spoke quietly. No matter what he said, he came back to himself.
Yes, Jackson acknowledged the obvious things: That the Tar Heels changed without Joel Berry, who sat out about 10 minutes in the second half after committing his fourth foul. That UNC failed to work the ball to the interior, where in the first half it executed with much success.
Again and again, though, Jackson came back to the one factor, in his mind, most responsible for his team's demise. He came back to himself. Here he was, again and again, taking responsibility for what transpired: a loss that could accurately be described as a collapse after UNC seemed headed for victory:
“I've got to play better for us to win. So I take responsibility for that.”
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“Honestly, some of my shots – I could have just rotated the ball. I could have made a better decision to get the ball inside. … And so for me, all I can look at is I have to play better for this team to win. And I have to do that if we're going to try to get back. So I've got to play better and this one's on me.”
“I tried to be aggressive, trying to get things going, and it just turned out to backfire.”
“I kept on shooting shots and whether they were forced or not, they weren't going in.”
“It falls back on being patient, and I didn't do that in the second half, and I take all the responsibility of that.”
Less than a week earlier, six days ago, Jackson learned that he'd earned ACC Player of the Year honors. The award was announced last Sunday, the day after UNC's home victory against Duke to end the regular season. Jackson's parents were still in town when news of the award arrived. They all celebrated.
Since then, though, it has been something of a struggle for Jackson. The Tar Heels beat Miami by 25 points in the ACC tournament semifinals, but Jackson finished with a quiet 12 points. During the regular season, he'd only scored so few points just once, when he had seven in a loss at Virginia.
That defeat, on Feb. 27, represents an unfortunate turning point for Jackson. Before the Virginia game, he'd scored at least 20 points in eight of his previous 10 games. He'd built a strong case for ACC Player of the Year honors, and he essentially won the award with that pre-Virginia stretch.
In his past four games, starting with the loss at Virginia, Jackson is averaging 12.5 points – well below his season average of around 18 per game. He has missed 40 of his past 60 shots from the field (a shooting percentage of 33.3 percent). And he's made 22.6 percent of his 3-point attempts (7-for-31).
When Berry committed his fourth foul on Friday night with about 15 minutes remaining, the Tar Heels led by 8. They quickly scored five points after Berry went to the bench, and so UNC's lead grew to 13. From there, though, Duke went on a 29-9 run until Berry returned with about five minutes to play.
UNC's offense changed without Berry. So did its defense.
That was obvious enough. Jackson didn't sugarcoat another key element of that stretch: He didn't play well. After UNC tied the game at 70 with 6 ½ minutes remaining, Jackson endured some of his most difficult moments of the game.
He committed a turnover. He missed a jump shot. He committed another turnover. He missed another shot. Then all of a sudden Duke's lead was 77-70 with 5 ½ minutes to play. And so that's why Jackson sat there quietly in front his locker in the aftermath.
Everything came flashing back to him. His misses. His two turnovers in critical moments.
Jackson made only six of his 22 attempts from the field on Friday night. And to him, the loss wasn't so much about Berry's foul trouble or UNC's failure to work the ball inside in the second half, or even Duke's relentless onslaught after UNC led by 13. To Jackson, the loss was about him. He wanted the blame.
Asked why he wanted the blame, this is what he said:
“I felt like I've been in a position all year to help this team and to try to lead this team. And we got to where we wanted to be in the regular season. And then I feel like I've been kind of pressing a little bit, over-thinking, whatever it might be. But I'm not helping my team. And yeah, I hit some shots here and there tonight. But at the end of the day I can't play the way that I did for us to be able to win.”
Just five days earlier Jackson had been celebrating his greatest individual achievement as a college athlete: The ACC Player of the Year award, which ensures that his No. 44 will be honored in the Smith Center rafters. On Friday night, while he lamented his performance against Duke, that celebration seemed a distant memory.