That reaction was understandable. The senior from Durham, N.C., was only minutes, if not seconds, removed from preventing a game-tying basket in the final five seconds. And he was only an hour removed from his first significant stretch as a North Carolina point guard.
Players like Watts are the reason stats never tell the whole story. On Saturday, his stat line read as follows: three points on 1-of-4 shooting, four rebounds, three steals, two turnovers and one assist in 18 minutes of play.
What the stat sheet doesn’t tell you is that Watts played four positions against the Wolfpack, two out of necessity. When Kendall Marshall picked up his second foul late in the first half, Watts subbed in as point guard for the final 4:50. UNC outscored N.C. State 11-9 during that stretch.
Watts, of course, deflected praise to his teammates when asked about playing a position where he had logged just two minutes previously in his college career.
“I was just catching and pitching ahead,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to do too much. When you’re throwing to guys like Zeller and Harrison, they make you look a lot better than you are.”
And when James Michael McAdoo picked up his fourth foul with 17:40 to play, it was Watts tasked with playing the 4-spot and defending C.J. Leslie, who up to that point had scored 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting. The Tar Heel senior held the Wolfpack sophomore scoreless for the next seven minutes and change, allowing his team to overcome a seven-point deficit.
“J. Watts’s play is not going to be looked as really that important because you look at numbers, but it was extremely important for us today without John, without Dexter [Strickland] and without Leslie [McDonald],” UNC head coach Roy Williams said.
If you’re wondering what it takes for a player to accept a do-everything-and-anything type of role, Watts provided a simple answer standing in front of his locker after the game.
“I just want to win.”
Watts admitted to reporters that he caught himself a couple of times thinking he was playing one position when he was actually playing another one. But with 10 seconds left on the clock and UNC clinging to a two-point lead, Watts stripped himself of the position labels and just made a basketball play.
DeShawn Painter was wide open underneath the basket as Scott Wood received a lengthy pass near the 3-point line on the left side of the court. Wood fired the ball in Painter’s direction, but Watts intercepted the pass. As his momentum carried him out of bounds with roughly five seconds on the clock, he turned and fired the ball the length of the court. When it was finally retrieved and N.C. State called a timeout, there was only 1.2 seconds remaining.
“I was sprinting back and I saw [Harrison Barnes] run out to Wood,” Watts said. “I really didn’t see who it was under the goal, but I just saw someone doing jumping jacks out of the corner of my eye and my first reaction was just to run as hard as I could and try to bother him. I didn’t think he was going to throw it right to me, but fortunately I was there and just threw it to the other end because I didn’t know what to do with it after that, so it turned out to be a good play.”
Williams elaborated on the circumstances surrounding those final seconds during his postgame press conference.
“I told Harrison when we had that timeout with 0.6 seconds that he should kiss J. Watts,” the ninth-year UNC head coach said. “He looked at me like, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because you should have been sprinting back and picking up that other guy and he saved your bacon and our whole team’s.’ So I just took it upon myself to kiss the top of his head.”
While Watts may have celebrated his Senior Day 11 days ago at the Smith Center, he will likely look back on that occasion as a time for reflection and time spent with family and friends, not one to brag to his grandchildren about his on-court antics.
He’ll save that for Saturday’s win. Watts will remember this game as the time he gave his team everything he had on the court and his play, as much as anybody else’s, helped North Carolina escape with victory.
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