By Turner Walston
I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career.
I've lost almost 300 games.
26 times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed.
I've failed over and over and over again in my life.
And that is why I succeed.
So said a certain 1986 graduate of the University of North Carolina in Nike Culture: The Sign of the Swoosh. A certain Tar Heel who was in the Smith Center crowd on Saturday night.
On the court that night, Justin Jackson was failing, over and over again. The junior wing was not having a good shooting night. Jackson's first two points came via a fast-break dunk after a Theo Pinson steal. The next two on a pretty floater after he drove hard to his left and elevated. "Who is better in college basketball at the mid-range game than Justin Jackson?" Jay Bilas asked on the ESPN broadcast. Who indeed?
But Jackson would miss five of his next six field goal tries. A driving attempt blocked by Harry Giles. A wide three-point attempt seconds after a triple from Duke's Frank Jackson. A step-back over Jayson Tatum that missed to the left. A long miss over two defenders after Isaiah Hicks created space with a screen. A three attempt from the wing that went right.
The one make in that stretch was a miraculous one: Jackson caught the ball on the block with his back to the basket, then appeared to rise and turn into contact in one motion. He was fouled by Matt Jones and scored off the glass. But he missed the ensuing free throw.
At halftime, Carolina's leading scorer had eight points on three made field goals and an assist, when he'd whipped an entry pass to Kennedy Meeks over the head of Jones.
Shooters shoot. You have to shoot to score, but with every shot, you take the risk of missing. Joel Berry made five three-point attempts in the first half. Meanwhile, Justin Jackson wasn't hitting his shots, but he did what he could to continue to make an impact. He did what we all should do when things aren't going our way: Step back, take a break, control what you can control and trust the process.
Jackson spent the night trying to run through screens on one end and running around them on the other. He was guarded by Jones and guarding Luke Kennard. Then Grayson Allen. Jayson Tatum. He must have been exhausted. Justin Jackson was not shooting well, but he was making an impact.
"When he doesn't have it going, he knows that he can affect the game in other ways, and I think that he did that tonight," Nate Britt said of his teammate. "He made sure he was always engaged on defense. He tried to get other people involved."
In the second half, the shooter kept shooting. He got free from Jones thanks to a Kennedy Meeks screen, but missed another three. Three minutes in, Pinson found him at the free throw line, then Jackson made a strong drive, switched hands and got a left-handed layup to fall. He saw the ball go in the basket. But then, three more misses. A frustrating night.
Tatum's dunk with eight minutes to play tied the score at 69. During the ensuing media timeout, Roy Williams told Jackson to take a beat before his next shot attempt, to get his feet set just a bit. A near-40 percent three-point shooter entering Saturday's game, Jackson had to that point missed all six of his attempts from beyond the arc. But Williams didn't discourage his shooter from shooting, and Jackson got another opportunity moments later.
Score tied at 71. Jackson on the baseline. Hicks set a screen between Jackson and Jones. Jackson went low and Jones went high. Jones eventually found Pinson. Kennard noticed Jackson away from his man, but Meeks slowed the Duke defender's advance. Jackson went to the perimeter, then low again. He stopped and set a screen on Frank Jackson to free Berry. Kennard switched to Berry, and Jackson on Jackson. Hicks got the ball from Pinson high. Justin Jackson used a 'v-cut' –a Day One Carolina Basketball School special– to create space from Frank Jackson. He came up high, and Hicks handed him the ball. Hicks then planted himself between the Jacksons, a literal Hazel Gordy. Tatum went low. Justin Jackson had the room he needed.
A beat. A breath. Feet set. Justin Jackson rose from 25 feet and fired. Junior walk-on Aaron Rohlman knew from the sideline, his arms aloft. Justin Jackson's shot was pure. 74-71, Carolina, 5:56 to play.
But Jackson wasn't done. On the next Tar Heel possession, he dribbled in from the top of the key, drew two defenders, then curled a beautiful bounce pass through traffic to Hicks for a lay-up plus one. 77-71. After Kennard got a jumper to fall, Luke Maye set a screen to separate Jackson and Jackson. Justin caught the ball high. Another Maye screen. Jackson drew two defenders, then Maye cut down the lane. An overhead pass from Jackson, a dribble and a score. On three consecutive possessions, Justin Jackson had a three-point field goal and two assists. He was directly involved in eight straight Tar Heel points. He'd given the Tar Heels a lead they would not relinquish.
And then, when Kennard and Allen pulled the Blue Devils within two, Jackson continued his work on the defensive end. Tatum set a screen to free up Allen. After the switch, Jackson picked up Tatum. The Duke freshman drove toward the basket, but pushed off with his left elbow. Offensive foul, drawn by Justin Jackson.
Fittingly, Carolina's final field goal was a Jackson lay-up. He finished with 15 points, a pair of rebounds and four assists on the night. Joel Berry's 28 points were the story of the night. Berry's name belongs next to Hansbrough, Davis and May, Lawson and Green, Johnson and Paige, among many others, in the list of great Tar Heel performances against Duke. So too Isaiah Hicks, who scored 21 points in a much-needed bounce-back performance. But Jackson's game was the story behind the story.
"He does that kind of stuff," Britt said. "He's not a selfish player. He knows when he has it going and when he doesn't."
And when he doesn't have it going, Jackson does the little things to stay engaged, keep his teammates involved, keep his team in the game, until he does get it going.
Justin Jackson has missed 653 shots in his college basketball career. He's failed over and over again. But he keeps shooting. He trusts the process. He trusts his coaches and teammates, and he never stops working to become a better player and teammate. And that is why he succeeds. That is why he is the ACC Player of the Year.