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.
“I think she stayed hungry," junior guard Taylor Koenen said. "She came in, she was ACC Freshman of the Year, and she wanted more. She didn’t settle. She always had that in the back of her mind. Even on tough days, when her knee hurt, she would still go do her rehab or she would ball-handle if she couldn’t move her knee."
After her injury, settling wasn’t an option for Watts. According to GoHeels, when doctors told her the recovery would take a year, she planned on recovering in seven months. She was determined to return better than ever — but her body wasn’t cooperating.
"When I realized it took me longer than I thought to get off the crutches or longer than I thought to get off my motion machine or longer than I thought to do each little step, I was like, 'Oh gosh, it's getting closer to the season. Maybe I won't be back in time,'" Watts told GoHeels.
So Watts, who as a first-year was 7th in the ACC in minutes played per game, sat out the year and used the opportunity to see the game from a vantage point that she wasn’t used to — the bench.
“I think my biggest thing is probably just decision-making," Watts said. "Watching our team going up and down the court, you actually get to watch different mistakes being made that the coaches talk about. You’re seeing the coaches tell different players different things, and it’s really helpful information, so I just kind of absorbed every little thing the coaches tell me and go from there, and I was able to learn from watching rather than playing."
Watts has tried to put that insight to good use. Against Elon, she turned in a solid performance in her first regular season game in over a year, finishing with 16 points on 4-8 from long range and nabbing a team-high nine rebounds. While she struggled in UNC’s second game against Kent State, shooting just 2-10 from the field and 1-6 from 3-point range, her coach has expressed little worry about her desire to keep working.
She’s in here shooting all the time," Hatchell said. "I know when I come (into the gym), either Stephanie, Taylor Koenen or Leah Church is probably going to be in here shooting — pretty much 24/7, so it shows and it pays off."
Watts hopes — for her sake and her team’s – the most difficult part is already behind her.
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