By now, the rest of the ACC should be on high-alert.
UNC wing forward Justin Jackson has turned himself into arguably the Tar Heels’ most dangerous weapon.
The junior poured in 28 points and six three-pointers on Wednesday in his team’s final non-conference game of the year, as the ninth-ranked Tar Heels cruised to a 102-74 victory over the Monmouth Hawks at the Smith Center.
Although the game was marred by extremely physical play that resulted in both teams combining to shoot 72 free throws, Jackson provided all the highlights UNC would need.
With double figure scoring performances inside from senior forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks—along with freshman Tony Bradley—there were more than enough opportunities to play from inside-out against a Monmouth team (10-3) that has now lost just three games this year.
Time and time again, the junior displayed a lethal confidence that has made him a surefire mismatch against any opponent—especially given his wiry, 6-foot-8 frame.
Having grown tired of talking about his much-improved three-point stroke, Jackson told reporters afterward that the biggest relief has been avoiding questions about it.
Instead he seemed to enjoy focusing on how his wide-ranging skill set—which helped him lead the team with five assists and grab five rebounds on Wednesday—helps open up numerous possibilities for the Tar Heels offensively.
“It just gives us, honestly, more space,” Jackson said of his ability to play all over the floor for UNC. “For me, I’m not gonna be inside a ton whenever I play the [power forward spot].
“When I space it gives everybody more driving lanes—which creates more drive and kicks and gives the bigs more space inside,” he continued. “It gives us a different versatility.”
Perhaps Jackson’s biggest helper against Monmouth was Meeks, who put together a double-double for the second straight outing by tallying 17 points and 12 rebounds. The Charlotte native scored four baskets in the opening minutes as UNC sprinted out to a lead it would hold for the final 37.
He also again showed an aggressive nature that should be expected for someone who is one of the most experienced players out on the floor.
While Meeks has shied away from taking on vocal leadership duties in the past, he was quick to say after this game that part of what Jackson is doing along with point guard Joel Berry is replacing the high-level outside production that former guard Marcus Paige brought in previous seasons.
“The absence of Marcus [Paige] could definitely be contributing to that—having more shots and more opportunities,” Meeks said. “He’s always been a great shooter, but the last couple years he hasn’t been shooting that well.
“But he works on his shot all the time, and it’s finally showing up and paying off.”
As fate would have it, the Tar Heels needed both Jackson and Meeks to play above their normal standards with Berry struggling due to sickness.
UNC’s biggest star during its early-season schedule did not score a single point in the first half, and needed the benefit of three quick second-half technical fouls on Monmouth to even score at all.
The scrappy Hawks had cut UNC’s lead to just 10 points early in the period when things started getting out of hand. This allowed Berry to calmly sink six foul shots during a one-minute span—representative of all his scoring.
It also marked the moment when Monmouth all but checked out of the game mentally.
Former UNC guard King Rice—now the head coach at Monmouth—was extremely emotional during his press conference when reflecting on that crucial stretch.
“I let some things get to me that I shouldn’t have let get to me, and then I think that went through our team,” Rice said. “Our kids let their emotions get the best of them.
“North Carolina is too good of a team for you to not keep your cool.”
Of course, Berry wasn’t the only Tar Heel dealing with an illness.
Head coach Roy Williams said he and his point guard each had two IVs throughout the day leading up to the game.
With their leaders ailing, Jackson and Meeks helped lift UNC to another win entering ACC play.
Still, though, Williams wasn’t completely satisfied with what he considered to be an ugly victory overall—especially considering the increase in competition that lies ahead.
“Some of us didn’t feel well, but we got through with a W,” Williams said. “We gotta start playing a heck of a lot better now, because it’s a whole different ball game [in the ACC].”
The Tar Heels open conference play in Atlanta with a road game against Georgia Tech on Saturday. That game is scheduled to tip-off at noon.
- The two teams combined for 52 fouls (27 on Monmouth, 25 on UNC) and 72 free throw attempts. It was a season high for fouls both by UNC and by an opponent.
- Justin Jackson has scored at least 27 points in three of the Tar Heels’ last five games.
UNC scored 100-plus points for the fourth time in 14 games this year. That’s the most 100-point games in a season since UNC had four in 2011-12 (the fourth time that year was also a 102-point effort vs. Monmouth).
- This was the fifth time in Roy Williams’ 14 years the Tar Heels won at least 12 non-conference games before the start of the ACC schedule.