GREENVILLE, S.C. — With bigger goals ahead and little opposition in Friday’s first round of the NCAA tournament, the main concerns were Justin Jackson’s extended shooting slump and making sure nobody got hurt.
The ACC Player of the Year quickly shot down that first worry as his missing perimeter shooting touch turned up in the Upstate of South Carolina. North Carolina can only hope that he remains locked in for the rest of the Tar Heels’ tournament run after a 103–64 blowout of Texas Southern.
The latter concern — an injury — came up when Joel Berry II turned his right ankle and UNC fans started to have Kendall Marshall flashbacks. He got medical attention after lying on the court, but he was fine and returned for a short stint in the second half.
After Jackson made only seven of his last 31 3-point tries coming into came into NCAA play, a 5-for-6 first half ended that slump with authority and he went on to collect 21 points and seven rebounds.
“He put a little bit more pressure [on himself], thought he had to try to do more,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “And I told him all he had to do was be Justin, and I think that’s what he was today. And I think he was sensational for us.”
His five 3-pointers were the third-most by a Tar Heel in an NCAA tournament game and gave him 95 this season to tie Shammond Williams’ single-season school record.
“For me, it would be a blessing for me to break it, but I’m not too worried about it,” Jackson said.
Jackson said that he didn’t feel any extra pressure because of his shooting slump but said he had been putting in extra shooting work. When his first 3-point try barely drew iron, it looked like the struggles were continuing. Then the next five easily went in.
“I try to get back into the gym as much as possible, try to prepare myself for this tournament. It felt good for some shots to fall,” Jackson said. “It definitely felt good. It definitely felt like they were going in every time. That just goes back to the preparation that I had.”
Jackson was just happy to be able to get more chances from the perimeter since they were facing a team that wasn’t as familiar with the Tar Heels.
“It feels good to play against a team that doesn’t know every single thing that we do,” Jackson said. “Against Virginia and Duke, they know every single tendency of what we do, so that gives them an opportunity to just focus in on me. Playing against a team that hasn’t seen us all year, it feels good to be able to run our plays.”
Although Jackson dismissed any extra pressure on him, Kennedy Meeks said that he could see the frustration building.
“The past weeks he’s been missing a lot of them, so, for him to finally be back is definitely a big lift for us and a weight off his shoulders,” Meeks said. “I think sometimes the ball doesn’t go in the basket and you have frustrations.”
Berry could also see Jackson’s frustrations of late.
“I don’t think he was putting a lot of pressure on himself, it’s just that sometimes when you’re working on your shot so much and it’s not going in, you get frustrated a little bit,” Berry said. “It’s good that he came out and knocked those 3s down and hopefully he can keep it going. We needed it so hopefully, he can come back Sunday and do it again.”
None of those frustrations could compare to the prospect, pondered briefly when Berry laid on the court, of playing without UNC’s star point guard. After he put up a shot, Barry landed awkwardly on a Texas Southern player’s foot.
“It scared me a little bit, so that’s why I just laid on the ground,” Berry said. “I just made sure everything was fine and moved it around a little bit. It’s a little sore right now but overall it feels good.”
It was his left ankle that Berry sprained when he missed a couple of December games. Once he was cleared to come back in, he wanted to at least play a little bit.
“They could have shut me down but I just wanted to get that confidence that it felt all right, so that’s the only reason I went back out there,” Berry said. “That initial injury kind of scares you a little bit. It felt pretty good.”
An injury may not be as much of a concern for Berry now. But could his difficulties from the perimeter of late eliminate another of the Tar Heels’ key weapons?
He made only one of six 3-point tries, a buzzer-beater at the end of the first half, and has hit only two of his last 12 3-point attempts. The 3 accounted for all of his points. The only game he scored fewer was when he had two at Hawaii.
“I’m not worried about it at all,” Berry said. “I’m not [in a slump] at all. They didn’t really need my 3s to go down tonight. It was one of those nights where I get by without hitting a shot. I’m not concerned.”
Carolina definitely won’t have to be concerned with their opponent trying to slow the tempo when it faces a run-happy Arkansas team in the second round on Sunday. That had the Tar Heels salivating a bit at the prospect.
“It is going to be a grind, they’ll pick us up full court and we’ll just have to get after it,” Berry said. “But that’s right up our alley. That’s what we want to do. We’re just going to have to be ready for 40 minutes going up and down.”
And, thankfully for the Tar Heels, even though Berry may be running on a sore right ankle, it isn’t going to hold him back.