Early in the third quarter of UNC women’s basketball’s 78-73 win over Notre Dame on Sunday, graduate guard Stephanie Watts went down near midcourt, rolling her ankle before limping into the locker room.
A few minutes later, Watts checked back into the game. And the Tar Heels were thrilled that she did, because Watts had what can only be described as a career game — scoring a season-high 25 points on 8-15 shooting as well as 12 rebounds and a career-high nine assists. One more assist would have gotten her the first triple-double in the history of the program.
And frankly, the Tar Heels needed her every step of the way.
“I just knew my team needed me to come out with energy,” Watts said. “Like I say, every time I just try to bring energy every single day, bring that consistently. And I think when you do that, good things happen.”
Up until last week’s loss to Syracuse, Watts had been relatively absent from box scores, making only six shots in the previous six games up to then.
Though she played well against the Orange, scoring 15 points, Sunday's game showed off the vintage Watts: one who could spend 35 minutes on the floor — a season-high — and wasn’t afraid of taking shots, with her 15 attempts tying a season-high and her 4-9 3-point shooting marking season-highs in both attempts and makes.
So, is Stephanie Watts back?
“Honestly, with the way she played against Syracuse, she’s back,” UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said. “She’s not going to make them all, but she impacts the game on so many levels and she’s an older guy, so we need her to use her experience here through the stretch.”
The end of Watts’ backslide coincides with the end of a poor run of play for the Tar Heels as a whole after losing their last three ACC games by 10 points or more. Of course, Watts didn’t end the losing streak single-handedly.
Graduate guard Petra Holešínská went 6-11 from deep en route to a 24-point performance. Senior center Janelle Bailey and first-year guard Alyssa Ustby scored 12 points apiece, while sophomore forward Malu Tshitenge gobbled up six offensive rebounds.
Though the team has had issues with passing and general cohesion, Banghart said this kind of complete performance represented a coming-together point between the veterans, newer recruits and graduate additions.
“It takes a while to build a team and their habits and understand how each other perform,” Banghart said. “It takes longer in a competitive environment than you think. The ball was sticking a little bit because they're trying to figure out each other in our system and whatnot, and they're starting to really figure it out.”
Sure, the win might’ve felt safer had the Tar Heels not missed eight free throws. Sure, they gave up 15 personal fouls to an Irish team that shot 82.4 percent from the stripe. And sure, the Tar Heels blew a 14-point lead and went down six with less than five minutes to play before a Watts and Holešínská-fueled comeback.
But in Holešínská's mind, those late sparks are what they’re here for.
“We knew we had enough time to come back and make plays,” Holešínská said. “As upperclassmen, we had to step up and make that happen. We can’t really ask freshmen to do it at that point in the game.”
The schedule only gets harder from here, with UNC traveling to Louisville to face the No. 1 Cardinals just four days from now. But Watts, fresh off a cold streak and looking to hold onto her newfound heat, said one tried-and-true strategy would work — no matter how difficult the opponent.
“I pride myself in playing with energy and pulling hard every single day,” Watts said. “When you do that, things are going to fall. Things are going to start to go your way.”
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