ATLANTA -- Out of the corner of his eye, North Carolina senior Justin Watts saw someone doing jumping jacks under the basket.
He didn’t know who it was, and with about three seconds left and his team leading NC State by two points Saturday, he didn’t really care: “All I knew was that I had to get there -- fast.”
So sprinting harder than several teammates had ever seen him sprint before, the 6-foot-5 athlete cut off NC State junior Scott Wood’s pass to an open DeShawn Painter, grabbed a steal, and threw it to the other end of the Phillips Arena Court.
“JWatts probably made the biggest play of the game,’’ North Carolina coach Roy Williams said after his team survived one last desperation play to beat the Wolfpack 69-67; the Tar Heels advanced to their 31st ACC tournament title game, where they will play Florida State on Sunday.
It was probably the biggest play, and game, of Watts' career, too.
Many will credit UNC’s 13th straight victory over rival NC State to point guard Kendall Marshall’s 8-foot bank shot with 10.2 seconds left -- a controversial play that had Wolfpack fans (and coach Mark Gottfried) screaming “charge!” after the sophomore put a shoulder into State’s Alex Johnson on his drive toward the hoop.
But even Marshall gave the kudos to Watts, who played four different positions because forward John Henson (sprained wrist) was sidelined and so many others were in foul trouble.
“He does so many things that so many people might not notice, might not appreciate,’’ said Marshall, who finished with 12 points and 10 assists. “But hopefully … people can see how big he came up for us in this game.”
Indeed, when Marshall picked up his second foul, Watts -- a natural wing -- spent some time at point guard.
“I was just catching and pitching ahead; I wasn’t trying to do much,’’ said Watts, who had played only one other (short) stretch this season at the ‘1.’ “When you’ve got guys to throw it into like [Tyler] Zeller and Harrison [Barnes], they make you look a lot better than you are."
And when UNC freshman James Michael McAdoo (making his first career start with Henson sidelined) picked up his fourth foul, Watts found himself playing power forward and guarding 6-8 star forward C.J. Leslie.
“He’s taller than me, so I just tried to use my quickness to stay in front of him,’’ Watts said.
That became key with 8:35 left, when Watts slid in front of Leslie to draw Leslie’s fourth foul (the second of three infractions for which the Wolfpack sophomore was called in a 91-second span, resulting in his fouling out). It was another whistle that had Wolfpack fans screaming in fury.
“In terms of calls, I think the final [tally] was something like 23-19, so you can’t really complain that was lopsided,’’ Barnes (16 points), who drew the fifth foul on Leslie (22 points), said. “They were calling it pretty tight, but for good reason -- you don’t want to let UNC-NC State get out of hand.”
It was a frenetic battle, though, one that saw 15 lead changes, one coat-shuck (by Gottfried), and several rare possessions of zone defense by the Tar Heels.
Zeller led UNC with 23 points, but he too credited Watts for doing so many important things in the victory. The reserve made only 1 of his 4 shots, but also had four rebounds, an assist and three steals -- including that key, racing grab in the final seconds.
“He fills so many roles for us,” Williams said. “A tremendous leader, a tremendous young man, tremendous versatility. He’s been asked to do so many things this year … JWatts is not selfish. He cares about our team, and that’s an admirable quality to have. It’s a quality that’s going to be good for him the rest of his life.”
Asked why he’s so willing to fill so many roles, Watts, who tends to shun the spotlight, explained his reasoning: “I’ll do whatever it takes to help my team win.”
Perhaps that’s why, after the Wolfpack couldn’t convert on a desperation play with 1.2 seconds left, Watts grabbed the game ball -- the same one he had swiped not long before -- and briefly pressed it to his lips.
“I was kissing the ball because it bounced our way a couple of times,’’ he said. “I appreciate that ball.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.