With five seconds left in regulation against the Washington Huskies last Thursday, Oregon Ducks junior point guard Nia Jackson found herself with the type of opportunity that is more like a Hollywood script than a kid's playground fantasy.
The 5'7" scoring leader had done everything in her power to put her team in position to leave her hometown of Seattle with a win. And really, playing on a sore left knee that forced her to sit for about a 10 minute stretch in the second half, you could even say that she stretched the limits of her power.
UW's entire 24-4 run to erase an 18-point second half lead came during that period when Jackson was on the bench. Then although Jackson returned to the game with a bit of a limp, she proceeded to score 7 points over the final 8 minutes of the second half, continuing to blow by UW defenders in fast break situations and attacking the basket with reckless abandon in the half court.
Washington guard Kristi Kingma had sidestepped a double team to hit a three pointer from the left wing on a somewhat improbable play to take a 74-73 lead with five seconds left and presumably set up one last opportunity for Oregon to escape the Emerald City with a win despite the injury to their floor leader. And after the Ducks' ensuing timeout there was little doubt that Jackson would be called upon to make that final play after having done so much to get the team to that point.
"We tried to screen for her to get her open, clear the left side, and let her go," said Oregon coach Paul Westhead afte the game. "No time for a clever play: give it to your best player."
After taking the inbounds pass from the right sideline she wheeled around the three point line until finding a gap between defenders at the top of the key and exploding to the rim to draw the foul and the opportunity for game-winning free throws with 1.3 seconds left and UW out of timeouts.
"From a guard's perspective, she was limping, but on offense, she was still super quick," said Kingma, who finished with a team-high 20 points. "She obviously at the end of the game didn't look like she was injured. She got the ball and went straight to the hoop."
Yet in managing to blow through the teeth of UW's defense to earn her game-winning free throws, she also managed to sustain another injury to her right knee that would only add to the magnitude of the moment: with the combined pain of two injured knees, it was clear to Ducks coach Paul Westhead that they needed two free throws to end the game not only because it would seal the win but also because sending the game to overtime without their star was a non-option.
"It was one of those games we needed it to end in the regulation," said Westhead after the game. "We were piecing together some people. We had some foul trouble. Nia Jackson was winding down."
Last Thursday's game in Seattle was my second opportunity to watch Jackson play this season and she hasn't been healthy for a whole game in either instance.
The first was the women's basketball opener at Matthew Knight Arena that drew a Pac-10 record crowd in late-January.
Nia Jackson and Kristi Fallin after Oregon's Civil War win.
After carrying her team to a 81-72 win over Oregon State in the first Civil War played in Oregon's new state-of-the-art Matthew Knight Arena while taking a break to vomit down the stretch, Jackson resisted a reporter's invitation to compare her 24 point performance to Michael Jordan's 38 point performance in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals.
"Yeah, I guess," Jackson responded with a nervous smile in politely dismissive fashion.
"Yeah, just take it," interjected teammate Kristi Fallin under her breath but audible to the recorders in front of her.
There's just really no way for any basketball player to just take a comparison to Michael Jordan, especially given that she might not recall it given that she was barely 8-years-old. Granted, perhaps you can see where the reporter was going with this question. The Civil War is a big deal in Oregon in its own right - possibly even the most meaningful matchup that either team will play this season - and playing their first game in a new arena in front of a Pac-10 record 12,320 basketball fans from all walks of life certainly set the stage for a "big game" environment.
However, whereas Jordan sort of added drama to his performance with a slow physical deterioration during stoppages while dominating the Utah Jazz when the ball was live, most reporters weren't even aware that Jackson was sick until she ran off the court during a stop in the action for a free throw attempt.
"I was sick kind of last week - I'm kind of getting over it right now," said Jackson when asked about why she had to leave the court. "But I kind of had mucus in my chest apparently. So I started coughing and since I couldn't spit I tried to swallow my mucus which was bad and it caused me to throw up. So not a good idea."
Setting that unappetizing image aside, her ability to persevere in these moments of illness and physical pain that setup heroic returns to the floor to lead her team, only add to the narrative of a season in which Jackson has emerged as one of the Pac-10's premiere players by almost any standard.
As well as Jeannette Pohlen has played this season, we can resist calling Jackson the best point guard in the conference, but most improved player is absolutely within reason. A track athlete in high school, Jackson has always been known for her speed and playmaking ability.
"Jackson’s phenomenal with the ball and when she gets it it’s a track meet to the basket at the other end," said Oregon State coach Scott Rueck after his team's Civil War loss. "They did a great job running the left wing especially and she found her their scorers a few times for layups."
And yet she's only improving.
The biggest factor in her ascending to the top of the Pac-10 in scoring and assists entering last week's game against Washington has almost unquestionably been the addition of a three point shot.
"I think her range has improved so now you have to guard her I think a foot beyond the three point line, just in case she'll pull that thing," said UW point guard Sarah Morton prior to their game last week. "But I think sticking with Charmaine (Barlow) staying on her, our best defender, just kinda getting in her grill. She's the leader of that team and the ball goes through her hands before anything happens. So if we can slow that down...then we'll have some success."
Looking at the nearly 15% leap in Jackson's three point shooting certainly quantifies how dramatically she has improved as a shooter, but it tells you far less about how much it has changed the way she plays. Last season, Jackson was the type of player who would pass on open shots in favor of using her speed to get herself another shot or kick to an elite shooter like now-graduated Taylor Lilley. Her resistance to shooting might not have been as dramatic as a player like Ticha Penicheiro, but it allowed defenders to try to cope with her speed by laying off her completely.
But having already shot more threes this season than all of last season, Jackson is almost a completely different player and far more difficult to defend.
"Shocking - she's not really shot the ball a lot in high school, AAU ball, especially threes," said UW guard Charmaine Barlow, Jackson's former high school teammate at Chief Sealth High School in Seattle. "Now that I know she has a jump shot I just have to play her honest. I have to be all up in her face knowing that she can shoot the ball consistently."
Of course, even finding Jackson to be all up in her face is difficult given the speed of Paul Ball.
Seemingly ironically, they control the ball better when they speed up and against both Oregon State at home and Washington on the road, they began to cough up the ball more often when their opponents slowed them down.
And if faster is better, it's hard to imagine many point guards in the nation better suited for the job than the one who can both distribute the ball efficiently and be available for an open three on a swing as the defense tries to collect itself.
"It's interesting - we can control the ball better at a high speed when it's just like a helter skelter pace than in the halfcourt," said Westhead after the Oregon State game. "If I were to break it down, we're more of a turnover team when we turn it in the half court offense versus in the fullcourt when things are wide-open. And you say well you have to make very hard decisions and hard passes. We're better at that because that's the way we play, that's the way we practice. So the moral of that is we don't wanna get caught in the halfcourt too much."
When Jackson isn't making those hard decisions and passes in transition, she's helping to create transition opportunities with her 2.5 steals per game. Whereas against inexperienced OSU, Jackson was often just in the right place in the right time to collect a steal from an errant pass, against Washington she was far more proactive. While the play on which she jumped a passing lane while in help defense was impressive, so was the play where she deflected a ball and caught Kingma from behind to get the ball and race to the basket for an uncontested layup.
Once teams do slow the Ducks down, the need to get all up in Jackson's face might explain another notable improvement in her game. With defenders playing her closer, she only has more opportunities to beat them off the dribble and the numbers suggest she's been doing that quite a bit more often this season.
Jackson's 7-8 free throw shooting against Washington, gave her 149 attempts for the season, which is already one more in 20 games than her first two seasons at Oregon combined and good for an outstanding free throw rate of 62.63% during conference play.
"She's just so explosive getting to the basket," said UW coach Tia Jackson. "She's driving, she can pull-up, she can get to the hole, she's drawing fouls. She can to the free throw line so well, just uses her body so well."
The significant improvement in her free throw shooting obviously seems like a nice sequeway to a perfect culmination for this hero's narrative with Jackson proving how clutch she is at the free throw line with 1.3 seconds left in Seattle.
"She's a big play performer - she seems to save her best for end of things," said Westhead after the Oregon State game. "She's usually very good at the end of the game by putting the ball away by making baskets or by making free throws. So she's our quarterback who we rely on bringing it home for us."
Yet standing on two bad knees, with a fresh jolt of pain coming from the right one, Jackson missed the first free throw. Although she made the second one to send the game into overtime, she wasn't able to play after banging that second knee en route to her game-winning free throw attempts.
And just as Westhead feared, they needed both of those free throws as Oregon ended up losing 90-76 to Washington. With Jackson still unable to play at Washington State on Saturday, the Ducks lost 96-90 to the Cougars in their following game before returning home.
However, perhaps the rather tragic end to Jackson's trip to the Washington only reinforces just how valuable she is to the team.
After Oregon guard Jasmin Holliday made the first shot of the overtime period, the Ducks were unable to make another shot while UW center Regina Rogers took over. If you Jackson's overtime absence with Jackson's absence in the second half, Washington outscored Oregon a combined 40-6 with Jackson out of the game. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to figure out that her presence had a rather significant effect on the game without having to explore hypotheticals or strategic implications.
Although it was undoubtedly a great win for the Huskies - easily among the best I've seen and quite possibly one of the best of the Tia Jackson era - it's also not a stretch to say that if Jackson had even been able to play just during the overtime, the final score would look very different to say the least.
Jackson is just that valuable to her team.
"Nia Jackson has been - because of her position as point guard - she's been the leader of this team," said Westhead after Thursday's loss. "Our team kind of gets on her back and says, 'Let's go - bring us.' So she's very important to us. It was obvious tonight. Tough kid."
During conference play, she's accounted for nearly 35% of Oregon's total statistical production and accounted for 36.5% of their production against Washington after limping to the bench with a game-high 22 points on 7-for-16 shooting, 4 assists and 2 steals.
Then of course one missed free throw.
Yet the reason there's little mention of mistakes she makes is because they don't happen too often with Jackson - she didn't enter the weekend leading the conference in assists as the by-product of risking a lot of turnovers and she doesn't score her conference-leading points 18.7 points per game by consuming a lot of possessions taking bad shots. She certainly gambles defensively, but recovery is made easier by her speed.
Within this whirlwind narrative of leadership, statistics, testimonials, and just plain toughness, Jackson probably appears to be some kind of point guard superhero. Indeed, in some ways she even defies comparison - almost any comparison runs the risk of exaggerating her potential or obscuring the breadth of her contributions.
But perhaps ending the story on a missed free throw is a nice reminder that she is in fact fallible, which at the very least makes her human. And of course with that is also the realization that she is still developing as a player, with her dramatically improved shooting a sign that there is no pre-determined ceiling for how good she can become.
At the very least, we can say that with Stanford's Jeannette Pohlen and Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot graduating, Jackson has a very good shot to stand alone as the most complete point guard on the west coast next season in addition to the Pac-10.
Nevertheless, whether she's the best point guard in her timezone is probably irrelevant to Westhead. What is most relevant is that she's arguably the best point guard for his offense because she has the athleticism and ability on both ends of the court that fuels his system.
If nothing else, her cheerful and relaxed disposition in otherwise routine media sessions is refreshing enough to make her easy to root for.