Junior Justin Jackson stole the show of a 62-54 victory against Rutgers on Wednesday with acrobatic saves, thundering blocks and energy nobody else on the floor could replicate. If this breakout becomes a trend, his fervor pushes the UC defense to the next level.
CINCINNATI -- For a moment, Justin Jackson disappeared. Not theoretically, as in from the offensive rhythm or from the rotation. Rather, from view. Of most everyone.
In a second attempt to improbably save a ball off a rebound, he ended up somewhere between the hallway leading to the visitor's locker room and Nippert Stadium.
As his teammates recovered to retain a valuable possession late in the 62-54 victory against Rutgers on Wednesday night Jackson finally emerged, trotting out from deep behind the stands with a smile stretching ear to ear.
This player who trends for #MeanFace ironically plays his best glowing with happiness. So do the Bearcats. In a sport now gauged by advanced metrics of every pass, shot, dribble and move, the value of energy doesn't register in percentages or shot charts. As Jackson and the Bearcats know, energy the junior provides not only affects the game, it changes it. For much of this season the effect of his shot-blocking, ball-saving, rebound-grabbing, mean-facing mentality fell to the background.
Not Wednesday, though.
"I'd say today he played the best game ---" Sean Kilpatrick began to say in the postgame media room, before Jackson broke in to finish the sentence himself.
"All year," Jackson said.
Can't deny the self-assessment. Jackson finished with seven points, seven rebounds, six blocks, three assists and one steal. His 26 minutes were the most since Wright State and the blocks a season high, one short of his career high of seven set against Marquette last year.
"He got back to the old Justin Jackson and that's blocking everything, saving everything, jumping in the crowd and being the energy guy that we need him to be," Sean Kilpatrick said. "That's something he's been working on and today it finally showed."
When Jackson plays with the intensity and effectiveness of Wednesday night the Bearcats defense morphs from excellent to elite. It was a staple of last year's Sweet Sixteen run and needs to be a staple if UC plans on returning.
So much of Jackson's game revolves around channeling attitude. An exciting block like his patented trailing rejection off the backboard on a fast break or sending a shot near Tony Pike sitting in the second row brings out the mean face and alters not only his mood but the atmosphere surrounding him.
The Rutgers win felt like a breakthrough moment in the season for a player who suffered through a demotion from the starting lineup and not playing a minute against Notre Dame.
"He was tremendous," said Mick Cronin, who gave Jackson his first start since the benching. "He got his teammates fired up, he obviously got the crowd into it. He earned a start the last couple days in practice. He was great in practice; I knew he was going to play well tonight. It's not that complicated in basketball. You can tell when guys are focused. He's hungry to get more minutes."
Cronin doesn't buy the concept Jackson played with more energy Wednesday than he has this season. Rather, the cumulative factor of staying out of foul trouble that so often plagues him. Truth, certainly. Yet, outsiders clamor for the nostalgia of a Jackson they remember who stole the hearts of a fan base that appreciates hustle and scrap more than skill or science.
This UC team clamored for that. Jackson, himself, clamored for it.
"(It came from) inside of me," Jackson said. "Just building up in me, it just came out, I hope it just stays out. That's my game. Just be the energy guy and do all the little things and do all the dirty work. "
Jackson led the way, but Kilpatrick and a cast of the usual suspects finished the job Wednesday. Rutgers coach Mike Rice said Kilpatrick "showed what an All-Conference Big East player looks like" en route to 19 points. The Bearcats found ways to run in transition much more after halftime and rode what's become a standard second-half surge for this team.
The push began with a defense that allowed only one field goal between 8:51 remaining and under a minute when the game was all but salted away. Forced turnovers and blocked shots played like a skipping CD.
At the center of it all was Jackson and his contagious shot-blocking that leaves the crowd smiling and cheering back at him.
What does it feel like to block a shot and feel the energy rise inside himself and 11,024 inside Fifth Third Arena? Hard to explain, he says.
When pressed to give an attempt, Jackson slyly slipped out his comparison.
"It's just like getting a new pair of shoes," he said.
Only, when Jackson gets a new pair of shoes, everyone on the team gets a new pair of shoes. Suddenly, the Bearcats bounce forward with a fresh hop in their step.
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