Jim Hawkins/Inside Carolina

Justin Jackson's Final Four Journey

Justin Jackson got back on track for North Carolina this season by rediscovering his love of the game.

Lloyd and Sharon Jackson rarely look at their phones during North Carolina games. There’s no time for social media or phone conversations while watching their son, Justin.

This past Sunday night was a little different.

In the final minutes of UNC’s East Regional final win over Notre Dame, they both picked up their phones to take pictures and video, to capture a once-in-a-lifetime moment – the moment they knew their son would be playing in the Final Four.

“Honestly, I can’t describe the feeling,” explained Sharon Jackson, Justin Jackson’s mother. “It’s one of those things where it’s just unbelievable. It’s amazing.”

The Jacksons have traveled to watch and support Justin and the Tar Heels all season.

They were at the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City when he was named MVP after two, 20+ point performances. They were at the last-second loss to Texas in Austin and they witnessed UNC’s triumph over Virginia in the ACC Tournament Championship game in Washington, D.C.

Their courtside view of the season has provided a unique perspective on the team’s successes and shortcomings.

“It was a journey for them to get where they are,” Sharon Jackson said. “(Sitting here) it’s just the realization that… watching this team evolve over the season after some of their struggles has just been amazing. We’re so proud of them.”

Much like the North Carolina team, Justin Jackson’s season has been a journey.

He entered the preseason with lofty goals and expectations after a strong close to his freshman season, and rave summer reviews provided by everyone from former NBA coach John Lucas to teammate Joel Berry to Boston Celtics forward Jared Sullinger.

But after a strong start to his sophomore campaign, Jackson struggled.

During UNC’s 8-0 start in ACC play, he shot 31 percent from the field and averaged 9.3 points per game. Prior to UNC’s game at Boston College in February, Jackson temporarily lost his starting small forward role. In two seasons at UNC, Jackson has played in all 76 games and started 73. Two of the non-starts were on Senior Days, and the other was at Boston College.

“He had these ups and downs and (the game at) Boston College was probably when things really started to change on a consistent basis for him,” his father, Lloyd Jackson, said. “I think the biggest thing for him was ‘you can control only what you can control’ and you have to focus on that. We talked to him about having fun. We told him he looks like he’s not happy out there. At some points he looked like he was miserable and we knew that wasn’t our son, especially because of the love and passion we know he has for the game.”

In North Carolina’s 14 games since his 20-point breakout performance at Boston College, Jackson has scored in double figures 13 times and significantly improved his field goal percentage.

Now, in two days, he’ll be playing on college basketball’s biggest stage – in his hometown. Jackson moved to Houston when was 11 and, though his parents no longer live there, it’s where he considers home.

“When they won it was just pure joy for the team, that was our first emotion,” Sharon Jackson said. “It’s really cool that we get to go back to Houston, but it’s just that fact that it’s the Final Four. That’s all that matters.”

The Jacksons estimate they received about 25 text messages immediately following UNC’s win over Notre Dame. Some, of course, from old friends trying to get the jump on ticket options.

Most, however, were simply offering congratulations.

“He has a lot of friends, family and a fan base in Houston,” said Sharon Jackson. “The basketball community in Houston is huge, yet everyone knows each other. I do think it holds special meaning for them to play the Final Four in his hometown.”

“I have a lot of old friends, old basketball teammates that are cheering for Justin that I don’t even think he knows,” she continued. “They are all super pumped for Justin and for the Heels.”

One of those people is Tim Schumacher, head coach of Jackson’s AAU team, Houston Hoops. In addition to Jackson, Schumacher also coached Oklahoma players Khadeem Lattin and Christian James.

“To me, he’s been a great teammate,” said Schumacher. “He does whatever his team needs. He makes the extra pass, gets baskets when they need them and he plays great defense. It’s exciting for him and his family and us; we’re all looking forward to seeing him when he gets here. He’s an unbelievable kid and a great player and he’s earned everything he’s gotten.”

When UNC takes the court on Saturday, the Jacksons know it’ll be the culmination of a journey Justin started many years ago.

“Justin is smiling and talking and having a great time,” Lloyd Jackson said. “That’s fun to watch.”

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