By Adam Lucas
BROOKLYN—In a six-minute span following Carolina’s 93-83 loss to Duke, Justin Jackson uttered some variation of the phrase, “That loss was on me,” 18 times.
That’s not an exaggeration.
“I played terrible. I take full responsibility for that.”
“I didn’t play as well as I should have.”
“I didn’t do anything to help our team.”
That’s just a sampling from the junior, who sat and answered every question, some repeatedly, for nearly a half-hour after the Tar Heels were eliminated from the ACC Tournament. Jackson made just six of his 22 field goal attempts and three of his 11 three-point attempts. He is now 20 for his last 60 (but was a 45.9 percent shooter this season before that stretch) and has made just seven of his last 31 from three-point range (but was a 39.9 percent three-point shooter before that stretch).
Those numbers don’t make sense. Not the way we’ve watched Jackson play this season.
“In this four-game stretch, it’s been about as poorly as he’s shot the ball all year long,” Roy Williams said after the game. “I do think he’s probably putting too much on himself.”
It’s one thing to play well enough to earn ACC Player of the Year consideration. It’s another thing entirely to receive that honor, then feel like you have to justify it to everyone that’s watching. There have been some times in the past two weeks that’s what it has looked like Jackson is doing.
The stretch that likely troubled him the most came after Nate Britt converted a three-point play to tie the game at 70 with 6:30 remaining. On the next Tar Heel possession, Jackson was whistled for an offensive foul. On the next possession, he missed a jumper. Then there was a Jackson turnover, and finally another missed jumper.
By the end of that flurry, Duke had taken a 77-70 lead and was in the process of sealing the victory.
It’s not an easy situation. It’s not like Jackson has to prove he’s capable of handling those moments. He already did that this season, and that’s why the Tar Heels are likely to be a top seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament. Without his impressive evolution, this season would have gone much, much differently. He's the ACC Player of the Year in what might be the best year in the history of the conference. He’s officially a jersey in the rafters guy, the most exclusive group in all of Carolina basketball. Jerseys in the rafters guys get automatic benefit of the doubt.
You could see him overthinking it both during the game and after the loss at his locker. On the court, he kept shooting, kept trying to get that one hoop that turns the momentum. After the game, he was replaying every possession, wondering if maybe he should have passed here or gotten a different shot there.
“Instead of forcing a shot, rotate the ball and maybe we can get it inside or get a better shot,” Jackson said. “It’s hard to balance sometimes. But that’s why I’m in this position. I have to be able to make those decisions and help our team and I didn’t do that tonight.”
Jackson’s sense of ownership is impressive, but his teammates know the loss doesn’t belong entirely on him. The key play of the game came when Joel Berry collected his fourth foul early in the second half. At that point, Carolina held an eight-point lead. By the time he came back in, the Tar Heels were down seven. They’d made 23 of 47 field goals when Berry went to the bench; they made just nine of 31 (29 percent) the rest of the way.
Berry’s speed and commitment to pushing the basketball after makes and misses had created multiple scoring chances in the first half. Carolina missed that transition offense for much of the second half, finishing with zero fast break points in the second half, and Jackson missed some of the opportunities that might have been created by that tempo. Jackson was terrific moving the ball early, including a couple of excellent assists on post feeds, and finished with four assists and zero turnovers in the first 20 minutes. He had zero assists and two turnovers in the second half.
Walking out of the Barclays Center, there were so many ways to explain this one. Berry's foul trouble and Duke's free throws and lack of execution and more, and several of these were presented to Jackson as alternative explanations for the loss.
No. He was not having it, and was completely unwilling to let anyone else receive even an iota of blame for this defeat. "I just have to play better," he said over and over. There it is, simultaneously the simplest and most complicated explanation of all.
The Tar Heels now get close to a week before they open NCAA Tournament competition. In ten days, one way or the other, we’ll remember nothing at all about the ACC Tournament. Williams has told anyone who will listen that Jackson’s outstanding season was created almost entirely by the player’s hard work in the offseason. Now he has a week to work through what will be nothing more than a footnote by the time the final story is written about this season. Jackson shot 12-for-32 in last year's ACC Tournament. He then responded by scoring in double figures in five straight NCAA Tournament games. He's had double-figure games in eight of his nine career NCAA Tournament games. When the lights come on next week, history suggests he'll show up.
Jackson has a unique personality. He's very even-keeled, to the point that his teammates found it especially notable when he let loose a little roar after dunking on an opponent at Pitt two weeks ago. But after three years, his head coach knows him well enough to see a little struggle behind the straightfaced on-court demeanor.
“I’ve had a little talk with him,” Williams said. “I’ve got to do some more because I think he’s putting a little too much on himself.”
The team is likely to be back in Chapel Hill by mid-afternoon on Saturday. Jackson already knew his plans for the rest of the day.
“I’ll be in the gym tomorrow,” Jackson said on Friday night. “I will be in the gym a ton to try and get back in there and get back to where I used to be.”
He still had time to accept the blame once more. But this time, in his final comments of the night, he wanted to make one more thing clear.
“I’ll take the blame for this one,” he said. “And it won’t happen again.”