GREENVILLE, S.C. — Justin Jackson didn’t want anything exorbitant — he’d have been happy with his miniature bottle of apple juice and the half-eaten plate of pulled pork sitting on the locker behind him. Maybe some potato chips, too.
But more than any of that, he’d like to finally be left alone.
As team managers and media personnel milled about the North Carolina men’s basketball locker room on Saturday, seemingly every one of them had something to say to Jackson. They formed a semicircular barrier around him, so much so that nobody could squeeze in — and Jackson couldn’t squeeze out.
Then there was the barrage of questions: How is No. 1 seed UNC preparing for No. 8 seed Arkansas ahead of Sunday’s NCAA tournament game? How is Joel Berry’s ankle the day after he rolled it? Are you thinking much about “the record?"
Jackson kind of scoffs at that last one. When people say “the record,” they mean UNC’s single-season 3-point record, set by Shammond Williams during the 1996-1997 season. He had 95 that year. Entering Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener against Texas Southern, Jackson had 90 — he needed five to tie the record, six to break it.
“Obviously I knew I was close,” Jackson said. “But for me, I was so focused on trying to get better these past couple of days.”
Maybe better isn’t the right word, though. It was more like getting back to normal.
The last few weeks of the season, Jackson’s 3-point shot — automatic all season — had faltered. Look no further than UNC’s most recent loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals. That game, Jackson scored 16 points, but he only made three of his 11 shots from deep.
So in the week that followed, the ACC Player of the Year got back in the gym. He’d call up Chase Bengel, one of UNC’s student managers, and go shoot the nights away. Even when his arms sagged and his legs tired, he’d persist until the shots fell again.
The record wasn’t on Jackson’s mind then — he just wanted to get back to helping his teammates.
“It wasn’t something he expected to do in the first game,” Bengel said. “Especially not in the first half.”
But those late-night sessions in the off week did the trick, curing whatever ailed Jackson’s shot. He drained five 3-pointers before halftime, tying the record and positioning himself to break it against the Razorbacks.
But there he was Saturday, surrounded by the media and expectations, waving off the record. Not its importance or its worth, specifically, but any mention of it at all. Every question came with the same script, of appreciation and importance but not dwelling.
His teammates, though, were another story.
“I’ll talk about it, for sure,” Nate Britt said. “I’ll go out of my way to make sure he gets it … And when he does, I’ll go crazy.”
The message was the same from all of Jackson’s teammates, even if he didn’t say so himself.
When that mighty wall of media finally dissipated, Jackson breathed a deep sigh of relief. He checked his phone, sipped his juice. Then he trashed the rest of his now-cold lunch. This is what he wanted — not to be the center of attention, but to waltz sideways out of the spotlight and back into the comfort of his teammates’ camaraderie.
As the locker room slowly cleared, cameras and microphones trickling out one by one, Jackson walked to the hall and grabbed a bag of chips. And with him finally out of the room, there was one last comment about the record, or at least about what it might be.
“I hope he shatters it,” Bengel said. “Go for 110, 120 — why not?"
“We’ve hopefully got five more games to do it.”
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