Nathan Jackson's track record says it's OK to be cautious about his last three games, when he's averaged 24 points in three basketball wins. The East junior hasn't always been a consistent performer during his three seasons.
Jackson and Aces coach Ron Allen advise against caution, however. Three games is a small sample, but Jackson is flourishing late in the season, a time when many players wear down.
Against Kapaun Mount Carmel on Tuesday, Jackson scored 28 points and had 10 rebounds in the Aces' 70-65 win. Jackson scored 18 points in the second half and helped East hold off Kapaun with several athletic plays around the basket.
"I plan on it lasting the rest of the year," Jackson said. "I know at the beginning of the season and throughout the season I've been playing OK, but I know I can do a lot better. I've made my mind up to step up. It's crunch time in the season."
Jackson usually gets the scraps left over from guards Jalen Love and Ja'ln Williams, East's most frequent ball handlers and shooters. Jackson, a 6-foot-5 forward, doesn't have the perimeter ability of those teammates, but is just as dynamic a scorer because he's versatile.
Jackson is adept at shooting a 15-foot jump shot, driving to the basket and at crashing the boards for tip-ins. His three baskets in the fourth quarter came on two tips and up-and-under reverse layup.
In the third quarter, Jackson scored 10 points to keep Kapaun from pulling away after the Crusaders took their biggest lead, 44-39, with 3:35 to go in the quarter.
For all of his big plays, Jackson found himself looking for atonement in the final seconds. After Kapaun's Taylor Floyd made two free throws to cut East's lead to 68-65 with 30 seconds to play, Jackson's errant pass gave the ball back to Kapaun.
The Aces draped Kapaun's first option, Michael Martin, leaving Michael Sheets open on the left wing. Sheets missed, and after a rebound and foul, Jackson made two free throws to put it away.
"I said 'I've got to make both these free throws,' " Jackson said. "It wasn't like, 'I've got to make one to get us four points up,' I had to make both of them. That was a stupid play on my part. I was upset with myself, and I had to redeem myself."
That was about Jackson's only mistake. Allen described the Aces as tired because Kapaun's screen-heavy offense often left East, playing for the second straight night, out of position.
But Jackson provided energy and the steadiness that has sometimes eluded him — he made 9 of his last 12 shots and was 8 of 9 from the free throw line.
"Nate is stepping his level up to another level right now," Allen said. "He's playing heads and heels above the players he's playing against. You notice him out there because he's at times taking the game over, both on the glass and with the mid-range game. There's not much you can do to him and he's pretty wired up. He wants to be the best."
Kapaun (7-10, 4-9) 17 16 14 18 — 65 East (13-4, 11-2) 15 20 16 19 — 70
KAPAUN MOUNT CARMEL: Hullings 1 0-0 2, Martin 8 1-3 20, Sheets 3 0-0 9, Lewis 2 0-0 5, Cook 1 1-2 3, Baxter 1 3-4 5, Floyd 8 3-5 19, Griffith 1 0-0 2, Washington 0 0-0 0, Hagan 0 0-0 0, Mitchell 0 0-0 0, Young 0 0-0 0. Totals 25 (7) 8-14 65.
EAST: Love 6 0-0 13, Williams 3 3-5 10, Dennis 2 0-0 5, Jackson 10 8-9 28, Melbert 1 1-2 3, McFann 4 2-4 10, Terrell 0 1-2 1, Graham 0 0-0 0, Johnson 0 0-0 0. S. Normore 0 0-0 0. Totals 26 (3) 15-22 70.