By Adam Lucas
WINSTON-SALEM—Justin Jackson gets it.
The Tar Heel junior had just finished plunging a dagger deep into a surprisingly hearty Wake Forest crowd of 13,159, drilling a three-pointer with a minute left that provided just enough cushion for a 93-87 victory.
The shot was Jackson’s third three-pointer on his way to a team-high 19 points, but it was the aftereffect that even he couldn’t help but notice.
“I like playing on the road,” Jackson said. “I like hearing the crowd go crazy and all of a sudden they get quiet. They made a run and the place was rocking…You definitely hear them, because they were loud before it came out of my hand. And when it went in, all you heard was North Carolina fans. Little things like that make me happy.”
When Justin’s happy, we’re all happy. And there is nothing in college basketball that can make you quite as happy as a good, solid road win. There’s the motorcycle and the flames and the fight song…and then there’s Justin Jackson making everyone get quiet.
Danny Green, of course, famously revealed that Roy Williams calls it taking another team’s brownies.
Whatever you call it, it’s harder than you think. After Wednesday’s play, in the calendar year 2017, Carolina is 2-0 in road Atlantic Coast Conference games. The rest of the league combined is 1-17 on the road in that same time span. Yes, there are tougher road games to come. But you have to win these before you get to those, and no one else in the conference is winning much of anything against anyone away from home. You can say it’s not an impressive 2-0…but would you rather be the team that’s 2-0, or the rest of the field that is 1-17?
Less than two weeks ago, Carolina looked completely inept away from the Smith Center in a stunning 12-point loss to Georgia Tech. To win on the road, you need a complete team effort. That’s what the Tar Heels have gotten in the last two outings away from Chapel Hill.
On Wednesday night, it wasn’t just Jackson. It was also that wily veteran Kennedy Meeks, once again putting together a classic Meeks game on the way to 18 points and 11 rebounds. With the rest of the Carolina post players battling injury (Tony Bradley, who suffered concussion-like symptoms and will be reevaluated tonight) or foul trouble (everyone else), Meeks had no choice but to play through fatigue in the second half.
And here’s the thing—rather than wilting, he made some of his biggest plays late, including blocking a pair of shots from the bouncy John Collins, hauling in an important defensive rebound, and then preventing Collins from getting what would have been a key offensive rebound in the final minute by tipping the ball away from the Deacons. Meeks himself didn’t get the ball—but he got the ball for his team.
“Kennedy,” said Isaiah Hicks, “definitely has some old man moves.”
Hicks likewise stepped to the line in a key situation and drained a one-and-one free throw opportunity, as did Kenny Williams. Joel Berry made a deep three-pointer in an important spot. Jackson and Berry threw some gorgeous passes through tight spaces. If any one of these plays doesn’t happen, there’s a very real chance that we’re sitting here agonizing over why the Tar Heels dropped a game in Winston-Salem. It wouldn’t have been the first time that a good Carolina team went into Lawrence Joel and fell victim to a hot-shooting Childress (this time it was Brandon, who scored 16 second-half points; ask your parents about Brandon’s dad, Randolph, who was Harold Arceneaux before there was Harold Arceneaux).
Instead, the UNC locker room was a jovial place, with his teammates roasting Kenny Williams for his occasionally angry in-game demeanor (“If you yell at me on the court one more time…” Theo Pinson told him with a grin). These are the locker rooms that develop a team’s personality. You lose these games more easily than you win them. But eventually, winning games like this becomes a habit and an expectation.
Under Roy Williams, who delights in winning on the road, the very best Tar Heel road teams have gotten a little taste early and then developed a real affinity for sending opposing fans home miserable. This group isn’t there yet.
But they’ve got the potential.
“A lot of winning on the road is maturity,” said Jackson. “And a lot of it is sticking together.”
“People who don’t play don’t get it,” says Meeks. “They don’t get how hard it is to win on the road. The fans are right up there on the sideline talking junk to you, and you’re playing a good team that is well coached. This team we have, we have the will to succeed in those situations.”