The tale of Justin Watts’ start against Presbyterian began last Monday.
It was after practice that Marcus Ginyard felt pain in the ball of his foot. The senior redshirted last season due to a fracture in that same foot, so it was practically a given that UNC coach Roy Williams wasn’t taking any chances.
Ginyard hasn’t been using crutches or a boot, but he has been rehabbing. And since his foot felt the same postgame as it did five days ago – though a team doctor says it’s not a fracture – he sat at the end of the Tar Heel bench in street clothes.
“It was disconcerting, to say the least, to not have Marcus,” Williams said. “We knew that yesterday. So we tried to put some lineups out there that we have not used very often.”
One such lineup was likely to include freshman guard Dexter Strickland. But on Friday, Strickland hurt his left hamstring going up for a dunk in practice. He wouldn’t be available either.
By the team’s pregame meal Saturday afternoon, no one quite knew who’d get the starting nod. But when Williams filled out the board with his starters’ names, Watts looked up to see his own name.
“It was a rush of adrenaline and excitement,” Watts said. “I didn’t want to get too overwhelmed. I still stayed focused on the game.”
He sure did.
On the team’s first basket, Watts dished to forward Ed Davis for an easy layup. Then, with UNC in the midst of an 8-0 run to start the game, Watts pulled up in the lane and drilled an easy jumper. All together, he put together seven points and grabbed four rebounds in the first half.
“I thought Justin was really active early,” Williams said. “Much more so than he was after he went out. I think defensively he did some nice things for us, but the best thing was chasing down two offensive rebounds.”
Freshman Leslie McDonald didn’t corral any offensive rebounds himself, but when given a chance to sub in for Watts, he did an admirable job early.
Nearly a minute after entering the game, he stole a pass and raced down the court for a layup. Moments later, he scored a nice one-handed jumper.
Williams seemed content with McDonald’s play. At least until the freshman’s decision-making began to get dicey.
The freshman let a fast-break pass bounce off his leg. And twice, he allowed opposing Blue Hose players to block or deflect his shots.
Still, by game’s end, the pair had combined for 16 points– upping the normal average of 10.4 points that Ginyard provides.
“I was just out there playing basketball,” Watts said. “I did what coach told me to do.”
Ginyard says he has no reservations about playing next weekend in a huge showdown against Texas, though the play of Watts and McDonald gives Williams a glimpse of what could be if Ginyard is unavailable.
The redshirt senior says the injury feels completely different than last year’s lingering, nagging foot injury that sidelined him for the season. According to Ginyard, news thus far has been nothing but encouraging for him recovering.
If he doesn’t, his replacements will get a crack against the Longhorns. And for Watts, who got his first ever start against Presbyterian, it might even give him a chance to get on television.
UNC’s game against the Blue Hose was the only non-televised game of the year for the Tar Heels.
“Yeah, yeah, Deon (Thompson) was talking to me about that after the game,” Watts said. “But it’s cool. It’s not a big deal.”
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