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Walk-on Watt helps UGA fill void

DULUTH - Andy Landers made a recruiting stop at Wesleyan a few months ago with plans on securing star senior guard Anne Marie Armstrong.

He signed Armstrong, who was already a Georgia commitment, to a scholarship but also found another player to help his women's basketball team immediately.

Landers told Wesleyan coach Jan Azar about his low number of players, so she suggested two of her former players who were already in school at Georgia, Ali Watt and Kelly Hall. Hall, a cheerleader for the Bulldogs, didn't join the basketball team, but Watt, despite a two-year plus layoff from hoops, liked the idea.

"I kind of took it lightly, didn't take it too seriously at first," Watt said. "Then (Landers) called and asked to set up a meeting. So we did that and here I am."

"We needed help and (Watt) answered the call," said Landers, one of the nation's winningest college basketball coaches. "She's come out and really been an asset for us."

The past few months capped an improbable journey for Watt, who had given up basketball when she helped Wesleyan to the last of three straight state championships in 2006. A good-shooting guard with size at 5-foot-10, she had options to play college basketball at smaller schools. But she told Azar after her junior year that she wasn't interested, opting to enroll at UGA.

She was the only member of her accomplished senior class - that also included Carolyn and Elise Whitney, Le Le LeSeur and Amaris Wilson - not to play college basketball.

At least until this season.

"Ali's a very good player," Azar said. "She just didn't want to play in college."

Basketball left Watt's life after high school and was replaced by a modeling career to earn extra money. She began as a model for Seven Jeans during her senior year of high school and also did some other projects that kept her busy up until Landers came calling back in October.

"I've gotten some heat for (the modeling work)," Watt said. "It's definitely a completely different transition. In modeling, they don't want you to run, just walk. They want you to have this lean figure. It's definitely not basketball."

Watt, a junior, had a rough start to 2008 for a number of reasons, including the passing of a close friend. She admitted that not much was going right, but was pleased when things started looking up in a matter of days.

One of those events was a call from Landers that brought basketball back into her life. She watched the Bulldogs practice and decided to take the chance.

"It didn't look that hard when I watched practice," Watt said. "Then once you get into it, it's tough. I hadn't lifted. I hadn't done anything in 21/2 years. So the first two weeks were pretty horrible. I've never been so sore. It was just awful."

The Georgia coaches praised Watt's ability to pick up the team's X's and O's. She just needed some time to get back in shape.

"First of all, it was tough for her because she hadn't played in a couple of years," Landers said. "She was in terrible shape. She would have had trouble running to the mailbox and back. But now she's gotten in shape. And she has a good understanding of the game. She's played in big games at Wesleyan, important games for important things.

"Probably the best thing I can say about her is she understands how important possessions and games and turnovers and all those things really are. When she plays, she tries to play in a way where she doesn't make mistakes and tries to do positive things."

Those first practices were brutal for Watt. She wasn't in basketball shape, but was practicing and going through conditioning with SEC-level athletes who train year-round.

It took time to get to their level physically.

"I did question (walking on) a little bit," Watt said. "It was extremely difficult, one of the toughest things I've done. But I had the support of my family and a lot of my friends who played, like Nikki Luckhurst. They kept on pushing me, telling me it was going to be worth it. And it has been."

Watt understands that she isn't one of the Bulldogs' key players, so she focuses on working hard in practice and helping the other players get ready. Most of her benefit to the 9-3 team comes in those practices, although she gets a reward every now and then by playing in a game.

She typically plays only in blowouts, but has seen action in six games for a total of 24 minutes. Her longest stint of eight minutes Nov. 26 against North Carolina Central was highlighted by her first, and so far only, basket.

Landers said the team and fans went crazy over the shot, one that Watt will always remember.

"That was very surreal," Watt said. "I could hear my mom and my friends screaming. Coach Landers told me after the game that I was the only player he knew that smiled on the court after they made their first basket."

The grin was with good reason from a player who thought she had made her final basket long ago.

SideBar: The Watt File

· Who: Georgia's Ali Watt

· Class: Junior

· High school: Wesleyan

· Height: 5-10

· Noteworthy:

· Made the Bulldogs this season as a walk-on after a two-year hiatus from competitive basketball

· Father Josh played football at Georgia and mother Julie was on UGA's Redcoat Band dance team

· Helped Wesleyan to three state basketball championships in high school

· Worked as a model prior to joining UGA's basketball team