With Pitt riding some Senior Day emotion, the first 17 minutes of Saturday afternoon’s game were back-and-forth with neither team possessing more than a six-point lead. After Michael Young hit a 3-pointer following a Cameron Johnson pin-down screen (Luke Maye’s navigation of the screen was poor; he was obviously out of his defensive comfort zone here), the Panthers cut the Carolina lead to two at 30-28. Over the three minutes that remained before the halftime break, however, Justin Jackson stated his case for ACC Player of the Year.
Let’s break down that 10-0, Jackson-led scoring run. It was a quick one, involving just four offensive possessions and four defensive stops for the Tar Heels.
UNC1 (33-28): Against the Pitt zone, Jackson hit Tony Bradley at the left elbow, then got it back on a dribble hand-off from him. Jackson was looking to launch a 3, but a strong Pitt close-out denied him that opportunity. So he again found Bradley and used him to facilitate a hand-off. This time the exchange created just enough space for Jackson to release a contested 3 from the left wing that he knocked down with a second left on the shot clock. This was one of Pitt’s better zone defense possessions, which made Jackson’s dagger at the buzzer even more disheartening.
PITT1 (33-28): After a solid possession of half-court defense by the Heels, Young settled for a step-back 3 from the left wing that was well-guarded by Maye. Jamel Artis out-battled Jackson for the offensive board (this hasn’t happened much: in ACC game, Jackson has 44 defensive boards while only allowing seven offensive rebounds), but had his put-back attempt altered by Tony Bradley. Joel Berry came crashing in for a strong defensive rebound in traffic.
UNC2 (35-28): Upon grabbing the board, Berry immediately pushed the pace himself. He skipped the ball to Jackson on the left wing. Jackson, having a decent transition look from his favorite spot, instead opted to bounced an entry pass to Maye on the left block for an easy lefty layup. This was an example of a selfless superstar giving up a good look to get a great one. It’s also one of the reasons why Carolina’s offense can be so hard to defend; the Heels are relentlessly committed to getting paint touches (which sets up the perimeter game). While Jackson got the primary assist here, the hockey assist went to Berry—one of UNC’s season-high 15 secondary assists (Jackson led the way here, too, with 4; Britt/Berry/Hicks had 3 apiece, while Woods and Pinson each had 1).
PITT2 (35-28): Pitt ran a ball screen with Sheldon Jeter setting a pick for Chris Jones. Jackson fought over the top of the screen, while Meeks flat-hedged the action in an effort to contain Jones’ penetration. Jones was still able to turn the corner, but Meeks corralled him well enough to set up Berry’s helpside rotation. Berry slid over to draw the charge—one of two that he picked up against the Panthers. Berry’s now drawn 13 offensive fouls this season, second on the team to Kenny Williams’ 17.
UNC3 (37-28): Against the Pitt zone, Jackson whipped a Pinson-like pass into Meeks on the left-side of the hoop. While Young recovered to block the initial attempt, Meeks was left wide-open for the subsequent tip-in. Although Jackson didn’t get credit for the assist here because of the offensive rebound, it was clearly his bullet pass that created the scoring opportunity.
PITT3 (37-28): Johnson took Pinson off the dribble from the right wing, forcing a Pinson bump/hand-check in the paint to control the penetration. The Panthers were still in the single bonus and Johnson, an 82% free-throw shooter, missed the front end with Meeks controlling the rebound.
UNC4 (40-28): The Heels capped off their 10-0 run the same way they started it: on a Jackson 3. This one was again late in the shot clock, and set up by Berry splitting the zone with a drive. After Berry picked up his dribble near the foul line, Jackson curled to the right wing to receive the kick-out pass. The spacing wasn’t great on this play, as both Britt and Jackson were simultaneously cutting to the same area. It didn’t matter, though, as Jackson was still able to make a contested catch-and-shoot 3 with four seconds left on the shot clock (and about 13 seconds left on the game clock). Both of Jackson’s 3s during this critical 10-0 run were in the final six seconds of the shot clock. He’s been an assassin in late-clock situations this season, with a True Shooting% of 90.1% with less than six seconds left in the possession (12-18 from the field, 8-12 behind the arc, and 3-3 from the foul line).
PITT4 (40-28): On the final possession of the half, Pitt used a Young ball screen to create a drive-and-kick opportunity for Justice Kithcart. He was able to get penetration and set up a left-corner 3 for Jeter, but a solid close-out by Meeks forced a miss as the clock expired.
All 10 of the Heels’ points in this defining half-ending spurt were scored or set up by Jackson. Some of it was good offense (like the secondary break entry to Maye for the layup), while some (like Jackson’s contested 3s) was just individual shot-making. UNC used some Jackson brilliance along with a couple good breaks (the 50-50 call on the Berry charge—close to being an “and-1” for Pitt, the front-end miss by a good shooter) to quickly turn a close game into a comfortable halftime margin. Pitt would never truly threaten in the second half, as Jackson’s late-half knockout-punch 3s effectively ended the Panthers’ chances. A player of the year does more than just fill up the stat sheet: he makes big plays in big situations. Jackson made his case again on Saturday afternoon, and it’s a compelling one.