Justin Watts key behind the scenes

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- With 46 seconds left and the shot clock winding down, North Carolina’s Justin Watts -- a freshman at the time -- put back his own miss to score the Tar Heels' final basket of the 2009 national championship game.

Funny thing is: With all the pandemonium exploding around him, he didn’t even know the bucket counted until months later, when it was a question in a basketball camp trivia contest.

“It is pretty neat that I scored,’’ the senior said earlier this season, smiling at the thought. “... But at that moment, it was about what the team had accomplished.”

And therein lay the legacy of Watts, who along with fellow scholarship senior Tyler Zeller and walk-on seniors David Dupont, Patrick Crouch and Stewart Cooper, will play their final game at the Smith Center (versus Maryland) on Wednesday night.

The 6-foot-5 Watts has scored only 160 points, averaging only a little over 6 minutes, and will start only his third career game against the Terps.

But the Durham native has filled in where needed, playing every position but the ‘5’ during his four-year tenure.

And he’s been an important key, especially behind the scenes, to rebuilding the Tar Heels into another national title contender.

“His contribution may be more significant off the court,’’ coach Roy Williams said earlier this season. “His leadership, talking to the guys, getting them to calm down if they’re too hyper, getting them to be more intense if they’re not enough, getting them to be confident if they’re struggling. ... During the course of a game, guys really listen to him.”

Indeed, Watts is so veteran that when a teammate comes out of the game and toward the bench, he often says what Williams was planning to say, first. During his off time, the communications major can often be found in the gym working out with teammates on shots or defensive moves or whatever game facet might be ailing.

He might shy away from attention in public, but in the locker room, he’s not afraid to speak his mind when necessary. And teammates respond.

Asked in a recent chat at TarHeelBlue.com who he looked up to the most on the team, star UNC forward Harrison Barnes offered an easy response.

“Justin Watts,’’ he replied. “He’s the guy who has been through the wringer.”

Think about it: Not since the freshmen of 2001-02 -- those guys who went 8-20 under Matt Doherty their first season before persevering to the 2005 NCAA title under Williams -- has a class experienced such a roller-coaster ride.

After earning a national title ring as a rookie, Watts watched it all disintegrate as his sophomore team lost 17 games and failed to make the NCAA tournament.

Then last season, after the Wear twins opted to transfer during the summer and senior Will Graves was kicked off the team for breaking a team rule, Watts was stunned when roommate and classmate Larry Drew II -- who had been demoted from starting point guard to reserve -- inexplicably transferred in the middle of the season. And he didn't even tell Watts when he left.

That adversity ended up bringing the team closer together, bonding it into the unit it is today.

But for Watts, it has been a strange somersault.

“There have been ups, and there have definitely been downs,’’ he said. “But through it all, I’ve always felt like the coaches, the people in Chapel Hill, have always had my back. And that’s felt good.”

Williams said he hopes Wednesday’s senior day game also feels good to Watts, because “he’s meant a heck of a lot to our basketball team -- so much more than someone would interpret just by looking at numbers.”

Watts, in turn, admits he's had a few moments in which he's pondered past this game, about what it might be like to play for the national title again -- maybe score another basket, earn another ring.

But most importantly, hoist another trophy. As a team.

“It would be mind blowing to get two of them; not too many players get a chance to get one,’’ he said. “But we’re just working hard each and every day to be the best team we can be, to get that chance at a second one.”

Spoken like a true senior leader.

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.