The 9-3 Tar Heels squared off with the 20th ranked UNLV Runnin’ Rebels at the Dean Smith Center looking to build on their resume and gain some momentum going into conference play. UNC went without small forward Reggie Bullock who suffered a concussion in Thursdays practice and was held out of the game.
Roy Williams started P.J. Hairston in Bullocks place and went with Desmond Hubert at the center position which has been a revolving door this year for Carolina. Keeping an eye on the rotation, UNC went with their starters for the first six and a half minutes before coming in with Leslie McDonald, Joel James and Brice Johnson. Fellow freshman J.P. Tokoto entered a few minutes later.
The defensive intensity was there early for Carolina who held UNLV scoreless the first three and a half minutes of the game. The Heels did not stand around and watch the ball and did a much better job of fighting through screens and remaining active and contesting the shot. Hairston played better defense in the first half than I have ever seen him play in his career who led the Heels with three steals in the first half. After 18 plus minutes of terrific intensity and execution on the defensive end UNC allowed a couple of threes to close out the half on a 6-1 run as UNLV cut the lead into single digits.
Offensively eight players scored for UNC in the first ten minutes of the game with the Heels up 21-10 in a well balanced start to the game. UNC did a nice job of making the right pass and setting good ball screens to free the shooter for a very effective start. James Michael McAdoo was very aggressive early but took some ill advised shots and started slowly shooting just 1-8 from the field. In the first half of the Heels 32 shots attempted just five were from beyond the arc. Minus McAdoo’s tough start UNC went 16-24 from the field in the first half.
UNC went into the half up by nine points 39-30 and as well as they played they really could have been up by a lot more considering the amount of shots they missed close to the basket. The Heels did not shoot a free throw until 2:18 left in the fist half.
UNLV started the second half playing with better efficiency on the offensive end attacking the basket and cut the lead to four after just three minutes of play after the break. The Rebels took the lead at the 14:00 mark with all the momentum on their side claiming their first lead of the game. After the Rebels took the lead UNC turned up the intensity and went on a 6-0 run to get the crowd back into it and reclaim the momentum.
Through 11 minutes in the second half UNLV was shooting 10-16 and out rebounding UNC 9-2 as the Heels struggled to show the same intensity and play the type of defense they did in the first 20 minutes. The Tar Heels didn’t allow the disappointment of giving up the lead to doom them in this match up and bounced back quickly each time UNLV tied the game or took the lead.
The Heels were able to recapture their first half intensity holding UNLV without a FG from the 7:20 mark through the 2;10 mark but didn’t cease control of the game leading by only four points (72-68) with two minutes left. Dexter Strickland came up with a big basket as the shot clock ran down to two seconds and then drew a foul to get to the line up five with 1:01 remaining. After hitting one UNLV scored quickly within six seconds to cut the lead to four with 55 seconds remaining as the tense game went down to the wire in Chapel Hill.
Strickland found himself back at the FT line with 40 seconds left after an intentional foul and again went 1-2 putting UNC up five. On the ensuing possession a questionable foul call on Marcus Paige on a three point attempt that drew boos from the crowd and criticism from the announcers put UNLV on the line for three shots after converting 2-3 the game was a one possession game with UNC leading by three. An intentional foul put Hairston on the line with 28 seconds remaining in a tense game P.J. knocked down both FTs putting Carolina up five and after a big defensive stop the Heels wrapped up their biggest win of the year.
McAdoo had a much better second half after starting 1-8 from the field he came out and attempted better shots and started 4-5 in the second half before exiting the game with a cramp at the seven minute mark. McAdoo returned four minutes later.
Without Bullock the Heels had five players in double figures and really spread the ball around well offensively. Paige had another strong game with 12 points, four rebounds and four assists with just two turnovers. Strickland led all scorers with 16 points, followed by Hairston with 15 who’s defensive effort and all around smart plays made him the player of the game.
This was a huge win for Carolina, especially without Bullock who now have a lot of momentum heading into conference play. Depending on how things shake out this could get UNC back in the Top 25 rankings.
Up Next: Conference play starts with UNC heading to Virginia to take on the Cavaliers on January 6th.