CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As Justin Jackson sat in the locker room following UNC’s 93-83 loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals on Friday, the junior forward couldn’t get one thing off his mind.
“I’ve got to play better for us to win, so I take responsibility,” Jackson told reporters during his postgame interview at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
He made similar comments to his teammates before the doors opened to the media.
“He said in the locker room 18 times that it was his fault that we lost the game,” head coach Roy Williams said on his radio show on Monday.
Jackson, who was named the ACC Player of the Year last week, ended the conference tournament on a lackluster note – shooting 11-33 from the field over the Tar Heels’ two games and 5-18 from the 3-point line.
Williams said that the Tomball, Tex. native had been feeling the pressure to perform at a top level even before the conference tournament began.
“He had struggled a little bit at Virginia and Duke here at home and then all of the sudden he’s named ACC Player of the Year and he thinks he’s got to do more,” Williams said.
For a player who averaged 18.1 points per game this season and named first-team All-America, it’s important to keep out all of the other noise, according to Williams.
“You hear people complaining or giving advice, just shut the hell up and let the boy get to be a better player,” the 14th-year UNC head coach said. “He’s trying his rear end off; he wants to do some things. He’s pressing a little bit and trying to do more.”
While Jackson sat in dismay after his team’s second loss to Duke this season, his coach gave him the one bit of advice he needed to hear before heading into NCAA Tournament play.
“I told him, ‘I had confidence in you before you were ACC Player of the Year and I still have confidence in you, so just be Justin Jackson,’” Williams said.
UNC opens up NCAA Tournament play against Texas Southern on Friday in Greenville, S.C.
What did you think of your team’s draw for the NCAA Tournament?
“Oh you always think your bracket’s the most difficult. I don’t care where you fall your coach always thinks it’s the most difficult. It’s an extremely difficult job for the selection committee to do and I felt like we should still be a No. 1 seed by being the regular season champion and winning it by two games. If we had been a No. 2 seed then I would have been okay because they really do work extremely hard…. We like being in Greenville, we would have liked to be in Greensboro probably a little bit better, but we like being in Greenville because so many of our fans can come see us play.”
How do you get your team into motion to get ready for the tournament?
“[Sunday] we gave them the day off completely, except coming to the house and watching the [Selection] Show. [Monday] we came in and we had a full practice… We’ll come in tomorrow and do some shooting, and then we’ll have a full practice on Wednesday and then leave and get into Greenville late Wednesday night. Thursday we have 45 minutes on the court practicing and an hour-and-a-half with the media, so what the crap is wrong with that? But that’s what it is. So we’ll practice offsite and then go in and just shoot in front of the public and then do all of our media requests and media interviews. Hopefully have a nice meeting on Thursday night and get ready to play on Friday.”
What do you think of nine ACC teams making it into the tournament?
“I think Syracuse was really, really close. I made the statement to my staff that I felt like Syracuse needed to beat Miami the first night. If they had done that I think they would have been in. That’s really, really close… For me, I focus on what we have to do and figure out the best thing.”
What were your overall thoughts on your team’s performance in the ACC Tournament?
“Yeah, it’s disappointing because we were doing some good things, and then all of the sudden it just stopped. People make a big thing of Joel Berry not being in the game and being in foul trouble, and it was, but it’s still North Carolina that’s got to keep playing. I pulled Joel over to the sideline and said, ‘Do I need to take you out or are you going to use your head?’ I’ve always said, when you get to the verge of foul trouble, the only foul that should be called is if you're trying to take a charge and they call a block, or if you’re trying to box somebody out and they call you for a foul. You should never get a reaching foul to put you over the edge and into foul trouble. That’s what happened. And he did foul him. He said he didn’t foul him, but he did. That was a big moment and we didn’t handle it well.
“Justin was struggling a little bit already and I think Justin has perhaps put a little more pressure on himself than he needs to. There were so many areas of the game where we didn’t play very well… the whole bottom line is that we didn’t play well. The whole bottom line is that in the second half I thought Duke was the hungrier team.”
Duke shot 37 free throws in the game. They’ve taken 72 free throws in the last two games between UNC and Duke. UNC has taken 39 in that same time period. What challenges have been there for your team?
“Well everybody is going to say the referees killed us, but the bottom line is we fouled the daggum people. We worked all week in preparation for the game and talked about playing defense without fouling… I get upset with the officials. I think they miss some of them, too, and I didn’t like some of the things that happened, but the bottom line is if you don’t want to foul, then slide your daggum feet and don’t reach in. We didn’t do a good job. They shot 72 free throws against us in two games, you normally lose both games.”
Isaiah Hicks seemed to have the best tournament individually on your team.
“He did some good things, and I want more from him. He was one of the guys I was chewing on on Saturday from 4-6, because I think he could have played better and done a little more. I’m always pushing, I want him to try and play the perfect game. I’ve never seen it played… Isaiah was very good in certain areas of the game. He won the defensive player of the game against Duke and I was still mad at him because I thought he could do more.”
Do you think there is carryover from the conference tournament to the NCAA tournament?
“I really feel like they’re separate events. Last year it gave us so much confidence to beat Virginia in that kind of game because Virginia is such a tough opponent. That helped us, confidence-wise. We’ve been to the Final Four eight times, and six of them we lost in the semi-finals of our conference tournament.”