ATLANTA — North Carolina's 69-67 victory here on Saturday against N.C. State in the ACC tournament semifinals will be remembered for its wild finish, most of all, and for some questionable calls that left N.C. State forward Richard Howell and his team's fans screaming at the officials at game's end.
But if the Tar Heels (29-4) go on to greater things this season, Saturday is likely to be remembered, too, as a day when UNC became a deeper, more dangerous team. For the second consecutive day, the Heels' reserves played starring roles - none more prominent than the one Justin Watts stepped into on Saturday afternoon at Philips Arena.
Watts, a senior guard from Durham, entered Saturday averaging 6.5 minutes of playing time per game. He played 18 minutes against N.C. State - some of them at point guard during the first half, others guarding Wolfpack forward C.J. Leslie during the second.
Watts scored only two points but his contributions couldn't be measured by a box score. His steal of a Scott Wood pass in the final seconds helped seal top-seeded UNC's victory, and set the No. 5 Wolfpack (22-12) up with a desperation length-of-the-court play with less than one second remaining.
"... I didn't know it was (DeShawn Painter) but I knew it was a guy without a Carolina jersey on, so I just sprinted as hard as I could," Watts said. "When I caught it I knew there was about five or six seconds left, so I just threw it to the other end."
For a brief moment, Painter was alone under the basket, in perfect position to tie the game. He never had the chance because of Watts, who intercepted Woods' pass and heaved it the opposite end of the court.
While describing the play later, UNC coach Roy Williams said Watts "saved [our] bacon."
Other players excelled in new and different roles, too. James Michael McAdoo, a freshman, made his first career start in place of the injured John Henson, who watched the game from the sideline while nursing a sprained left wrist. McAdoo finished with 9 points.
And then there was Kendall Marshall, UNC's sophomore point guard who made the game-winning shot with 10 seconds to play. Those kinds of plays are usually reserved for Harrison Barnes, but Barnes passed back out to Marshall, who had little time to create.
"In high school, they put the ball in my hands," Marshall said with a smile. "When I got to college, it changed a little bit."
The Tar Heels were shorthanded from the beginning, without Henson, and foul trouble kept McAdoo and Tyler Zeller on the bench for longer than they would have been.
Yet UNC found a way. On the game's final play, N.C. State's C.J. Williams passed the length of the court to Howell, who never had a chance to attempt a shot. Howell believed he'd been fouled on the play, and the no-call came after several other questionable calls, or no-calls, that went against the Wolfpack.
Two of those came in the span of 32 seconds in the second half, when Leslie was called for his fourth foul on a questionable charge and then fouled out after making contact with Barnes, who later acknowledged that UNC had received a break on the play.
At the end, while Howell had to be restrained by teammates from confronting the officiating crew, the Tar Heels jogged back to their locker room, victorious.
They had won 28 times before Saturday, but this victory came differently than all the others.
"Early in the year I don't think our bench necessarily contributed as much as we wanted them to," Barnes said. "And now, I mean, they're the glue that keeps this team together."