Sophomore guard Rocket Watts met his coach on the court after MSU men's basketball's 70-64 victory over Michigan.
Watts had a career-night against the No. 2 team in the country, putting up season highs in minutes played (33), field goals made (8) and rebounds grabbed (4).
After their embrace, Watts shared with Head Coach Tom Izzo the true driving force behind his stand-out night — his mother was sitting in the stands.
"Even tough old Rocket was in tears," Izzo said of the duo's post-game conversation. "Those are the kind of things that make the job worth the job. … I got a memory-making moment that day to see how much that impacted him, that was pretty cool.”
Watts said this was the first time his mother had came out to watch him in his collegiate career. He first caught a glimpse of her when he checked into the game from the bench five minutes into the first half.
“When I checked in I looked, and I saw her and I just got real excited," Watts said. "I got mad energy, and it was crazy."
The sophomore's "mad energy" translated as he dished out two clean assists to redshirt junior forward Joey Hauser in his first minutes on the court.
From there Watts would top all scorers in Sunday night's matchup with 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting.
“It felt real good seeing my mom in the stands," Watts said. "Looking her in her eyes when I was on the court and seeing tears come down her eyes, that meant a lot to me.”
His performance made him adjust to a go-to role for the Spartans, who not only paved their way to victory but also made their 23rd trip to the NCAA Tournament all but official. Even junior forward Aaron Henry, who has been the Spartans' leader for much of the year, was ready to let Watts rock and roll.
“Coach was trying to get me involved but, I said 'Rocket, go ahead man, you're doing it. You're taking the right shots, making shots, giving guys the ball. Go have fun. Go have a day,'" Henry said. "... His mom was there, and they get to have that moment for forever.”
The Detroit native's turnaround came after a tough season for him and his team. After playing an increasingly significant role alongside former teammate Cassius Winston at the end of last season, many expected Watts to take on an enlarged role this season in the green and white.
Instead, Watts has rotated in and out of Izzo's starting lineup, adjusting between the point guard and shooting guard positions. On March 4, Watts was benched for the final 17 minutes of the squads game in Ann Arbor after not diving for a loose ball that was then made into a Michigan basket.
On Friday, Izzo said he felt like Watts had “lost his tenacity” on defense, and Watts shared a similar disappointment.
“I was real mad at myself, not at the coaching, just mad at myself because I know I could’ve played a lot better and harder at Michigan," Watts said. "I was just mad at myself and that made me work harder.”
Before Sunday, Watts averaged 5.57 points in this season's Big Ten matchups. He broke double digits in just two of those matchups while being held to zero points in another two.
“I’m so happy for him," Henry said. "Honestly, everyone is genuinely happy for him with the type of up and down year he's had. I try to tell him I went through ups and downs last year as well. So, I'm just trying to tell him ‘Hey it isn’t as bad as you think, somebody has it worse than you, keep going.'"
On what would usually be senior night, "super senior" Joshua Langford had a similar appreciation to give to his younger teammate.
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“For him to have this game tonight it’s special," Langford said. "It’s really special because he’s an unbelievable talent, but he’s also an unbelievable person and to see him get rewarded for all the things he’s been through, it hasn’t been an easy year for him, and just to see him have this game, it’s just awesome.”
Watts will look to grow further in his role as the Spartans play Maryland at 11:30 a.m. Thursday of the Big Ten Tournament.
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