It's been a long road back for junior Stephanie Watts, but in her first taste of live action since Feb. 16, 2017, she didn’t miss a beat.
Though the game wasn't a conference game — a home exhibition against Carson-Newman in which the Tar Heels won 115-74 — Watts imbued the night with something that’s been scarce in recent years for fans of North Carolina women’s basketball.
She gave them hope.
Make no mistake: Watts isn’t the only cause for optimism this season. Early in the season, redshirt senior guard Paris Kea looks sharper than ever, chipping in 17 and 25 points in the Tar Heels' first two contests. The 2018 ACC Freshman of the Year Janelle Bailey is off to a promising start in her sophomore campaign, and junior transfer guard Shayla Bennett led the Tar Heels in their opener against Elon, finishing with 19 points and seven assists. On a team that received some votes on a preseason top 25 USA Today coaches poll after a disappointing 15-16 record last year, Watts is far from the only bright spot.
But the 2016 ACC Freshman of the Year is still one to watch. After missing out on more than a year of basketball due to a damaged knee cartilage that ended her sophomore season, that first exhibition reminded fans of what she can do — that is, elevate the Tar Heels to a completely new level.
Watts dropped 28 points in just 23 minutes and sank five 3-pointers against Carson-Newman.
“She got hot out there," UNC head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "If the score hadn’t have been what it had been and I’d let everybody play, she probably would made another five or six (3-pointers)."
It’s not just her buckets, though. Watts contributed six assists and six rebounds along with four blocks and a pair of steals. Granted, it was against inferior competition, and the game didn’t count for a thing, but it provided a glimpse of Watts' tantalizing potential, still present after injury.
So far in Chapel Hill, Watts has done it all. The former McDonald’s All-American averaged 14.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game in her first season, then increased her scoring average to 16.8 points per game in her shortened sophomore season.