Jackson leads UNC to title game

For the fourth time in five years, North Carolina will play in the ACC championship game. This time, though, the route to get there was even tougher than usual.

And the star of the Tar Heels’ 71-67 semifinal win was an unusual hero.

In a night when UNC shot nearly 55 percent from the field, Justin Jackson played the best game of his freshman season. His first rookie mistake of the night didn’t even come until after the game, when he had trouble finding his way to the stage in the press room.

“I’ve said all along he was going to be a real good shooter for us,” Roy Williams said of Jackson, who scored 22 points and made four of his five attempts from three-point range. “It’s a matter of time; somemtimes it takes some guys longer than others.”

While Jackson had struggled for much of the season, shooting 26 percent from long range going into Friday, he was noticeably shooting the ball with more confidence against the Cavaliers.

“I always knew I was a shooter,” Jackson said. “Obviously, the numbers didn’t show it. But for me, I knew it would come around sooner or later.”

Jackson wasn’t the only player who shined on Friday. Despite a slow start, Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon scored 22 of his 25 points in the second half, coming up with crucial buckets just when the Tar Heels looked like they were about to pull away. Early in the second half, UNC led by 13, but Virginia closed that gap to one behind clutch play by Brogdon.

“Coach Bennett got into me at halftime and got me going,” Brogdon said. “I just think they set the tone.”

The Tar Heels set the tone early, but in the end, it was free throws and turnover-free basketball that made the difference. The Cavaliers were trailing by one when J.P. Tokoto turned it over with 2:26 on the clock, but UNC got a stop on the other end and didn’t turn it over again.

From there, Williams’ team made six of its last seven free throws. The Tar Heels capitalized from the charity stripe again just a day after making all 12 of their second-half free throws against Louisville.

“Teams talk about us being soft and all that kind of stuff, but I liked our toughness down the stretch yesterday and today both,” Williams stated.

That toughness was fueled by Jackson.

“I’m just glad I was able to contribute to this game and be able to move on tomorrow,” Jackson said.

If the freshman can replicate that performance tomorrow, UNC should have an excellent shot at getting its first win in its last four championship appearances.