KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Lost in North Carolina’s loss at Northern Iowa was the emergence of Justin Jackson. The sophomore wing continued that ascending trajectory in the Tar Heels’ 80-69 win over Northwestern on Monday.
Through UNC’s first three games, Jackson averaged 6.7 points on 37.5 percent shooting (9-of-24), including woeful marks from the free throw line (2-of-8) and behind the arc (0-of-9).
Player and coach both highlighted a need for a more aggressive approach, a rekindling of the assertiveness that transformed Jackson from a freshman into a budding star last March.
After setting a career high with 25 points in Saturday’s loss in Cedar Falls, Jackson was once again the aggressor against the Wildcats at the Sprint Center, consistently finding the weak spots in their zone and attacking the rim. He finished with 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting to go along with a career-high 13 rebounds.
“I thought Justin Jackson, who everyone wanted me to be worried about five days ago, has played pretty well the past two games,” Roy Williams told reporters after the game.
Jackson did most of his work along the baseline, taking advantage of Northwestern’s attempts to match up with UNC’s high-low post game. Time and time again he was able to slide to the basket without much resistance.
“Even all through high school, I was able to find the open spot whenever people were in a zone,” Jackson said. “Today I just kept on trying to get to the open spot and my teammates kept finding me, so it was a good game.”
Jackson’s play in the first half (11 points, 6 rebs) helped the Tar Heels withstand a 27-11 Wildcat run and match it with a 14-1 spurt to take a 43-36 lead into halftime.
“Justin did a tremendous job today of getting into those open areas and attacking the basket,” Kennedy Meeks said. “He hit some big-time shots for us.”
His final points of the game came on a slash into the paint, where he received a pass from Theo Pinson for a two-handed slam.
Jackson’s back-to-back 20-point games are a first in his young career, although his head coach was more impressed with his work on the glass.
“The last two games the ball’s gone in the basket a little bit more, but I will say his aggressiveness on the backboards tonight was huge for us,” said Williams, who added that rebounding was a point of emphasis in his spring meeting with Jackson.
Jackson grabbed four rebounds total in his first three games of 2014-15. His previous career high was seven. Against Northwestern, he had six offensive rebounds, and set his new career high 70 seconds into the second half.
“Coach Rob always tells me to get to the board,” Jackson said. “Even Coach tells me and Theo and all of the twos and threes that if we don’t go and rebound, we should just come out. So today, they were in a zone, so they had an area to box out, not a particular person, so for me, I just tried to get in there and the ball just happened to fall into my hands a couple of times.”
Over his last two games, the Tomball, Texas native has averaged 23 points on 56.7 percent shooting (17-of-30) to go along with 8.5 rebounds.
Jackson admitted to being frustrated to how he started the season, but found a spark in the snow in Iowa. The goal now is to make a trend out of these recent performances.