CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Until now, Hubert Davis has seen no reason to rush Jalen Washington's return to the basketball court. So when the UNC men's basketball head coach decided to play the rehabbing first-year forward 27 minutes in Tuesday's loss to Virginia, it was out of pure necessity.
Just one minute and 18 seconds into the late-night ACC matchup in Charlottesville, UNC star center Armando Bacot went down with a left ankle injury while competing for an offensive rebound and limped off the court and into the locker room.
The Tar Heels were already starting a three-guard lineup as graduate forward Pete Nance missed his second straight game with an injured back. Suddenly, UNC's already thin frontcourt became a whole lot thinner, and Davis was forced to conjure up a new game plan against the No. 13 team on the road.
"(Washington's) number was called tonight," Davis said.
After several unfruitful minutes with senior forward Justin McKoy playing the five, Washington checked into the game alongside junior forward Puff Johnson. UNC trailed 10-5. Still in the process of recovering from an ACL tear that he suffered in high school, the highly-touted prospect has been used sparingly this season.
At first glance, Washington doesn't seem to be a particularly threatening big man. He's not particularly physically imposing for a center with his 6-foot-10, 225-pound frame. He also isn't a very quick or explosive athlete.
However, the former five-star recruit from Gary, Ind. boasts a remarkably soft touch and deep bag of face-up moves that reveal a surprising finesse to his game.
With just under 11 minutes to play in the first half, Washington drew a shooting foul and made one of two free throws. On the next possession, he caught the ball on the baseline, baited his defender with a jab step and drained a midrange jumper to tie the game, 10-10.
Virginia proceeded to turn the ball over on the other end of the court, and junior guard Caleb Love found Washington rolling to the basket for a two-handed dunk. The five-point swing helped put UNC in control of the game for the remainder of the first half.
"Just rolling off those screens and my teammates finding me well (helped with) being able to finish those plays," Washington said.
Washington's breakout moment wasn't done quite yet, though. Two possessions later, Washington grabbed an offensive board and put the ball back in the basket to surpass his previous career high of six points.
By halftime, that career high had doubled thanks to a few more buckets in the paint. At the break, UNC led 29-27 and Washington led all scorers with 12 points on 5-7 shooting in 11 minutes of playing time — also a career-high.
"It's definitely a testimony to a lot of my hard work," Washington said. "Having to come back from two tough injuries, it's definitely a blessing to be out there."
Washington slowed down considerably in the second half, tallying only one point and going 0-4 from the field. He attributed that partly to fatigue — the first-year is still working on his conditioning after a year-and-a-half hiatus from the sport, and his 27 minutes against Virginia were by far his highest minute total of the season.
With little update on Bacot and Nance, Washington may have to acclimate quickly to playing a larger role on the team as UNC looks to find some semblance of consistency for the thick of conference play.
"(There's) a lot of productiveness being lost in this lineup," Seth Trimble said of his fellow first-year teammate. "So just him stepping up and being ready, being able to do what he (does) with a lot of minutes being played, that was a huge change for him. It was amazing to see."
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