I cannot explain enough on how BIG of a win it was for the Tar Heels yesterday afternoon against UNLV. By topping the Runnin’ Rebels, North Carolina launched themselves to a 10-3 record and perhaps back into the top 25. The win proved that Coach Williams and his team are capable of beating good quality opponents which hasn’t been the case so far this season. For a young team, the confidence boost is huge and couldn’t have come at a better time with ACC play just a week out.
Fans have been screaming for PJ Hairston to start for weeks now and with Reggie Bullock out with a concussion, UNC fans got that wish. Obviously, we always want a healthy Bullock on the roster, but Hairston more than delivered in his absence. PJ tallied up 15 points and 4 rebounds, but what really set him apart was his hustle and defensive intensity. He forced four steals and got a couple put backs off of missed shots that ended up being crucial to countering a couple of UNLV runs during the course of the game. Clearly, Hairston has earned himself more playing time with his performance, but he’ll need to be as consistent as ever with his added minutes because the games aren’t going to get any easier from here.
I thought both Dexter Strickland and Marcus Paige has nice games as well. Both guards took care of the ball and did a great job getting to the basket and picking up fouls. I’ve been looking for Paige to start penetrating more often because that seems to suit his game better. He’s a point guard that has a knack to score, but needs to put himself in better position to play to that strength. Getting into the lane is going allow him to do that. Marcus finished the game in double figures for just the third or fourth time this year and he did it by getting in the lane and drawing contact. He went 6-8 from the free throw line and since he’s on a team that struggles to make free throws, I can only hope Roy encourages the youngster to keep it up.
Dexter of course is no stranger to driving the lane and did that masterfully yesterday getting layups both in the half court and in transition as well as getting fouled and going to the line. I felt like Dex really showed his senior leadership during the late stretches and really just made smart choices with the ball. He earned every one of his 16 points and perhaps my favorite play of the game was toward the end of regulation when Dex got caught up at the top of the key with the shot clock winding down and had the ball knocked loose, but was able retain possession and hit a dagger of a shot from the free throw line to really ice UNLV. Carolina really benefited from that leadership and poise he provided and I hope Dex continues to step up in that fashion over the next couple of months because his team will certainly need it.
Of course, improvements can always be made, but all in all, Carolina showed up and played hard yesterday and really proved that they can grind out wins against top quality competition. It’s looking like Desmond Hubert may be getting the nod as the starting center going forward, but he’s steadily improving. His defense really has improved as of late and has made impacts in key moments the past couple of games. Brice Johnson seems to be really comfortable in his role off the bench and Joel James is still a work in progress. Both players will have bright careers in Chapel Hill, but until they’re ready we should get used to Desmond down low for the time being.
Next up, Carolina heads to Charlottesville to take on Virginia. The game is sure to be tough and gritty as all ACC road games are, but this matchup is very winnable for the Heels. Joe Harris will be a player to key on, but statistically I think Carolina is too strong. A 1-0 start to conference play is vitally important for Carolina and a whole week of practice should have them prepared. Check back in for updates as the week goes by and tune in next Sunday at 8:00 PM for the ACC opener.