Jackson regains his form to lead UNC to opening round NCAA win

The ACC Player of the Year scored 21 points on a night in which the Tar Heels overcame an injury scare to point guard Joel Berry on the way to a 103-64 rout of Texas Southern

Bob Donnan—USA Today Sports
Mar 17

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The Justin Jackson watch is officially over. The newly minted ACC Player of the Year broke out of his shooting slump in a big way Friday by hitting five straight 3-pointers on his way to leading the top-seeded North Carolina basketball team to a 103-64 first round NCAA tournament blowout of Texas Southern. But while Jackson’s return to form helped ease the fears of his coaches, teammates and fans, the giddiness associated with his performance and the lopsided mismatch never even made until the end of the game because of an unexpected new concern. The mood inside Bon Secours Wellness Arena abruptly shifted from party to panic when Joel Berry crashed to the floor writhing in pain after coming down awkwardly on the foot of a Texas Southern defender while taking a shot. His situation brought back visions of another calamity involving a star point guard, when UNC’s national championship hopes in 2012 were derailed by an early round injury to Kendall Marshall. The Tar Heels (28-7) were able to breathe a sigh of relief this time when Berry returned to the court five minutes later and showed no ill effects of the rolled right ankle he suffered. “When he first went down, we were all just scared because we didn’t want him to be hurt,” teammate Nate Britt said of Berry’s injury. “To be back in the tournament, be back as a one-seed and kind of in a similar position to where we were last year, we want all of our guys to be here and play. We need Joel.” Although Berry’s health scare turned out to be just that, a scare, there was still reason for UNC to be at least mildly worried about its most important player. The 6-foot junior made just one of his six 3-point attempts against the 16th seeded Tigers, a 28-footer at the halftime buzzer, while going 1 for 8 overall. Going back to his sizzling 5 for 5 performance from long range in the regular season finale against Duke, Berry has hit only three of his last 16 shots from beyond the arc. If the Justin Jackson watch is officially over, the Joel Berry watch may have officially begun. Not that anyone in the Tar Heels locker room after the game, especially Berry himself, seemed overly concerned. “That team gave us their all, but it was one of those nights where we able to get by without me hitting a lot of shots,” said Berry on a night in which UNC shot 50.7 percent from the floor, outrebounded Texas Southern 54-27 and had six players score in double figures while rolling to its third-largest victory ever in an NCAA tournament game. “I’m not concerned at all. I’ll be just fine.” Berry’s confidence was likely fueled by the breakout performance by teammate Jackson. The junior wing had hit on only 7 of his 31 3-pointers in his four previous games leading up to Friday’s South Region opener. He got off to an ominous start by barely drawing iron on his first long-distance attempt before making the next five — three of which came during a 14-0 run that broke the game open late in the first half. His five 3-pointers brought his season total to 95, tying a school record. His 19 points in the first half surpassed his scoring output for all any of his other nine career NCAA tournament games. Jackson finished the night with 21 points, seven rebounds and three assists in just 24 minutes of action. “Coach mentioned it to me when I went to his office, just be me,” Jackson said, suggesting that he’d begun to put too much pressure on himself after winning the ACC’s top individual honor in a close vote. “People are going to say other people should have gotten the award, (but) I earned it. So at the end of the day, I’ve got to play like the player that I was to earn that award instead of trying to show people why I got it.” Jackson wasn’t the only UNC player in top form against the outmanned Tigers (23-12). Isaiah Hicks scored 17 points while staying out of foul trouble and going 8 for 12 from the floor. Kennedy Meeks added 13 points and fellow big man Tony Bradley added 12 while each pulled down six rebounds. Stilman White even tied his career high with six points in nine minutes of action. Because of the big lead, coach Roy Williams was able to substitute liberally in the second half, allowing him to conserve his starters for Sunday’s second round matchup with Arkansas. “I like the fact that we had nine guys play at least 15 minutes,” Williams said. “I think it’s good to get a lot of guys in the game, because I play a lot of guys and they’re going to be important to us.”