Nearly a year – and a verbal commitment to North Carolina -- later, Simmons has used his friend's tears and his team's loss as motivation for everything he does.
"It was tough, we got within one game of the ultimate goal," said Simmons. "That loss has motivated us a lot. Every time I take the court, I think about the game. Every time I run a drill or lift a weight, I think about that game."
On Thursday, Simmons led the Mustangs to a 71-55 senior-night win over North Henderson, capping off a perfect 20-0 regular season. Simmons scored 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the win.
SMHS begins play in its conference tournament on Monday and in the NCHSAA 2-A playoffs in two weeks. If the Mustangs were to advance to the state championship game, they'd face the Eastern Region champion in the Dean E. Smith Center on March 12.
"If we got that far and were to win, I'd start my career in the Smith Center 1-0, so that'd be good," Simmons said with a chuckle. "I've dreamed about winning a state championship every night since I was a little kid. The Smith Center is where I've always wanted to play and winning there would be icing on the cake of my high school career.
And what a career, especially senior season, Simmons has had.
The 6-foot-7, 208-pound forward has scored 30 or more points 13 times and pulled down 15 or more rebounds 12 times this year. He has 18 double-doubles and seven games with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. Not to mention, he's shooting better than 85 percent from the free throw line.
So just what makes the son of former Western Carolina standout Si Simmons and 29-year coaching veteran Cindi Simmons so great?
Pundits and detractors would point to the lack of elite competition in the far-western part of North Carolina. Others would simply say his height advantage over most high school players is too great. Simmons attributes his success, however, to something only he can control.
"I think I just have a love for the game," he explained. "Every time I step out on the court, every time I do something basketball related, I feel like there is someone out there that says I can't do this – that I'm not what I really I am."
"That motivates me because I know that I put in the work. I just want to go out and prove that I'm a good player, that I'm going to Carolina for a reason and that I can put up numbers regardless of the competition."
Simmons' defiant attitude and fiery on-the-court demeanor, according to his father, have been built around a strict and intense daily workout regimen. The elder Simmons said Jackson rarely misses a chance to get in the gym, lift, stretch and put up extra shots.
"The love for the weight room is something that's tough to acquire," Jackson said. "It's fun and it helps me get better each and every day. I know it's not just my basketball skills, but other things I need to improve upon as well. My trainer and I just say to each other ‘let's do work.'"
Though he's been busy with SMHS's season, Jackson visited Chapel Hill for UNC's blowout win over North Carolina State and regularly communicates with his future teammates. Jackson said he's developed a special bond with junior center Tyler Zeller.
"He sort of took me under his wing," Jackson said of Zeller. "He's been like sort of a big brother to me. He's mentored me and showed me how things are done with Carolina. I'm also close to Kendall (Marshall), Reggie (Bullock) and Harrison (Barnes). And me and P.J. (Hairston), we know each other well from high school basketball."
Jackson visited and verbally committed to UNC just before the Tar Heels' trip to the Bahamas in August. He said that after careful consideration, one factor above all made his college choice an easy one.
"I had a chance to play for the greatest university and greatest college basketball program in America," he said. "Coach Williams said that my work ethic is going to decide my playing time and my role. I think I can go in there and be a big contributor for Carolina."
For now, the UNC coaching staff has told Jackson to focus on his high school season and picking up the state title he desperately covets. Still, Jackson admitted he can't help but think about June 16 – the day he's scheduled to arrive in Chapel Hill.
"I just can't wait to get there, start competiting and doing whatever the coaches want me to do," Jackson said. "I'm all about winning. And at the end of the day people remember you, especially at North Carolina, for winning national championships."
Senior night at Smoky Mountain High School