GREENSBORO--Here's something you might not have expected: this column, which is supposedly about Carolina's 79-76 win over Maryland in the ACC Tournament semifinals, is actually about Justin Watts.
Well, maybe it's not specifically about Watts, a senior on last year's team. But it's about Justin Watts kind of plays, the ones that might more routinely be called game-changing.
With apologies to P.J. Hairston (nice job gutting through the hand injury) and Marcus Paige (two incredibly huge baskets in the game's closing minutes, including a floater over Alex Len from almost behind the backboard), you will have to read about them elsewhere. This story can't be about them, because it's about Carolina's game leader in points, rebounds and assists, the second time in the last month that Reggie Bullock has led the team in all of those categories.
But he did even more than that in his 38 minutes. He did, well, everything. In less than 30 seconds, he might have decided the game. With 2:30 left, Carolina had a 73-70 lead, but Maryland had the ball and a chance to tie.
Bullock spent most of the afternoon of his 22nd birthday guarding Terp star Dez Wells, who was spectacular in Maryland's win over Duke on Friday night. Bullock largely frustrated Wells, who spent most of the first 30 minutes of the game showing frustration with his teammates and himself after missing some makeable shots and struggling to get open looks. Wells looked unstoppable against the Blue Devils. For most of Saturday afternoon, Bullock stopped him.
On this particular possession, with 2:30 remaining, Wells got the ball on the left wing. Bullock played off him just enough to leap and deflect Wells's attempted entry pass to Alex Len. Not content just to get the deflection, Bullock proceeded to gather the ball near the Maryland bench, have the awareness to know that James Michael McAdoo was streaking down the sideline, fling the ball to McAdoo while falling out of bounds, and then watch as the Tar Heel sophomore earned a pair of free throws after being fouled on his breakaway layup attempt.
Think his teammates don't appreciate the plays Bullock makes? As soon as the whistle blew stopping play, there were McAdoo and Hairston pointing down the court at Bullock, acknowledging that he was the one who made the play possible.
That play probably saved two Terp points and turned into two Tar Heel points.
On the next possession, he saved two more. This time, he thwarted a Wells drive, forcing a miss that bounced off the rim and was tipped around under the basket. Eventually, it caromed over the end line, where it was briefly saved by Wells, who leaped to grab it and then fired it back towards Logan Aronhalt, who was set up on the opposite of the rim and very much appeared to have a layup.
"I wasn't really in the picture," Bullock admitted after the game.
He wasn't. Wells didn't see the Kinston native, but you can excuse him, because Bullock was up the lane. At the moment Wells threw the ball to Aronhalt, Bullock suddenly changed direction, flashed in front of Aronhalt with quickness you might not have known he has, stole the ball while falling out of bounds and managed to save it to McAdoo before his feet touched the boundary line.
All of this took eight seconds from the beginning of Wells's drive to the end of the play. It was breathtaking in person, the way Bullock sprung himself into the play and totally changed its dynamic. It's even better on replay. Combined with the previous possession, it's undoubtedly the best 30 seconds of the postseason so far for Carolina. What is it Roy Williams has talked about all year--a sense of urgency? Bullock's play personifies that phrase.
In other words, it was an easy play to love right when it happened. But you'll love it even more when you hear how Bullock described it after the game.
"We had a great play like that against NC State last year in the ACC Tournament," Bullock said. "Justin Watts made a very similar play. I felt like my team needed me to be in the right place and make a play for the team."
He's exactly right--Carolina did get a very similar play last year in the ACC Tournament semifinals. And it was, indeed, Watts who did it.
Remember? You can be forgiven if you don't, because that game was all about Kendall Marshall's drive and score that gave the Tar Heels the eventual margin of victory. But Watts was the one who preserved the win, covering for a potential defensive miscue by Harrison Barnes and making what Roy Williams called "the biggest play of the game" by sprinting downcourt and recording a game-saving steal.
Who remembers a play like that, and cites it off the top of his head a full year later? Reggie Bullock, of course.
Watts's teammates loved him because of plays just like that. Those plays are the reason when Marshall went down and the Tar Heels had to use Watts as the backup point guard, no one in the locker room seemed especially concerned. They had the utmost respect, which extended to completely believing that the former power forward could play backup point guard--or most anything else--if needed.
That's the kind of esteem Bullock is building. It's also part of the reason he didn't make first-team All-ACC, because you have to watch him in every single game to understand how often he makes those types of plays. He is not really great at anything. But he is good at everything. He is not spectacular, but he is every bit a basketball player, the kind sometimes in short supply in the era of specialization, of shooters and passers and slashers. He is none of those, really. He is just a player.
As for first-team All-ACC, four of those individuals will be home watching Bullock play in the ACC Tournament title game on Sunday. It won't be hard to locate him on the court. He'll be the one making the Watts-esque, game-saving...winning plays.Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.