For much of the season to date, the Tar Heels have been too much sweet little Cindy Lou Who and not enough Grinch against the tougher teams. That all changed on Saturday, as the Heels discovered a competitive mean streak that had been heretofore lacking. "We were doing the little things as far as taking charges, getting to the loose balls, scrapping, boxing out and doing everything it took to win," noted P.J. Hairston, who chipped in with four steals and two charges taken to go along with 15 points in 32 minutes.
Carolina started the game seemingly determined to run its half court offense through James Michael McAdoo, who showed little hesitation in taking the game to UNLV's front line. McAdoo was just 1-of-8 from the field in the first half, but Hairston collected two of those misses for easy stickbacks. Equally important, McAdoo's aggressiveness seemed to give Carolina a focus in the half court offense and helped keep the Tar Heels from settling for the first available three point shot.
Carolina also showed its highest level of physical aggression and mental and physical toughness in the first half. Desmond Hubert, collecting another start, helped set the tone with two blocked shots, two rebounds, and some good boxouts, as well as a rare scoring post move in his 13 first half minutes. Carolina was scrappier than usual on the perimeter as well, notching seven first-half steals.
As UNLV head coach Dave Rice put it, "They played a great first half and even better first 10 minutes of the game."
Carolina led by as many as 15 points at 36-21, before a late Vegas flurry cut the lead to 9 (39-30) before the break.
As expected the Running Rebels, making their first ever visit to Chapel Hill, came at Carolina hard to start the second half. Having shown physical toughness, the Tar Heels were given a test of their competitive toughness in the game's late stages. The answer was surprisingly impressive.
After UNLV tied the game at 46 with 14 minutes to play, Carolina scored field goals on three consecutive possessions, including two baskets from McAdoo, to push the lead back to four points. McAdoo then capped an impressive mini-stretch by adding a free throw and a sweet assist to Johnson to help Carolina re-establish a 56-51 lead going into the under-12 timeout.
But Vegas refused to go away, cutting the lead to just one point on a corner three ball by Anthony Marshall at the ten minute mark. After 30 of their best minutes of the season, the Tar Heels had just a one point lead—and a creeping sense of doubt amongst the crowd—to show for their efforts.
It's at times like these that home court can and should help make a difference, especially for relatively inexperienced players. A kind rim helped too as Hairston saw his three point shot hit every bit of the rim and fall in to briefly restore a four point lead; a minute later, the Greensboro native took a charge against Anthony Bennett to keep the Rebels at bay at 62-61.
The feisty Tar Heels continued to see their efforts rewarded with McAdoo grabbing a physical defensive rebound and Paige drawing a foul and converting two important free throws to push the lead back to three heading into the under-eight timeout.
Carolina continued to come up with good plays on the defensive end, including another blocked shot by Hubert defending the impressive Bennett and a clean strip by Hairston at midcourt to help push the lead out to six again with 5:43 to go. Even a foul by Johnson (after an entertaining exchange of steals between the teams in the previous sequence) brought appreciative applause from the crowd, because he got enough of the ball to stop a field goal.
Two costly misses from the line by Johnson left the Rebels within striking distance at 71-64 going into the under-four timeout.
Empty possession disease then bit the Heels over the next couple of minutes as Carolina missed the chance to put the game away. Reinhardt's three after a Paige air ball with the shot clock winding down cut the lead back to 72-68, leading Roy Williams to take a timeout with exactly two minutes to go.
Would—or could—Carolina execute in the final stages to get the W? Strickland converted a short jumper the next possession with the shot clock again running out, after a recovering a fortuitous bounce. Bennett then quickly drew a shooting foul, but could convert only one free throw with 1:23 to play.
Strickland handled the ball most of the next possession and was sent to the line by Reinhardt for the double bonus. The New Jersey senior hit one free throw, giving Carolina briefly a six point lead with a minute to go, before a quick Vegas bucket by Marshall reduced the margin down to four.
Strickland was sent to the line yet again and again had to settle for one make with 40 ticks to go. Then Paige committed the freshman error of fouling the three point shooter Reinhardt on what looked to be a heave from over 25 feet. Reinhardt failed to take full advantage, however, making just two free throws to cut the lead to three.
Hairston was the next to step to the stripe with 28.5 seconds to go; the sophomore confidently drained both shots to push the lead to five. McAdoo rebounded a Marshall miss and threw a quick outlet downcourt that allowed Carolina to almost run out the clock, before Strickland was finally fouled with 4.7 seconds to go, bringing a very happy holiday crowd to its feet to celebrate a big victory over Top 20 opponent.
Postgame, a coughing Roy Williams praised his team's effort and how pleased he was for this team to pick up a quality win. "Those are the kinds of moments I coach for," said Williams. "I see kids enjoying themselves, feeling the satisfaction of doing some things that are fairly difficult to do." Freshman Brice Johnson said he had never seen Roy Williams jump up and down in the locker room like that but that it was "amazing."
That euphoria was backed not just by the win but by solid basketball substance. The Tar Heels shot 51 percent from the field, took just 10 of 55 field goals from behind the three-point arc, consistently got the ball to its best player in dangerous positions while also getting five players in double figures, and battled exceptionally hard on the boards and in the loose ball department. In addition, the crowd was excellent, and an important factor in the game according to McAdoo, Marcus Paige, and other players.
In short, it looks like there will be entertaining and high-quality basketball in Chapel Hill in 2013 after all.
It was also an interesting day for the Tar Heel nation off the court as former player and coach Matt Doherty made his first return to the Smith Center for a home game since resigning his coaching position in 2003. Sporting a Carolina blue blazer, Doherty took in the game just behind the Tar Heel bench seated next to his former guard Melvin Scott. In addition to the numerous banners Doherty was a part of, he can take satisfaction in the greatly enhanced student end zone section that was initiated on his watch as coach—a change that helped make atmospheres in the Smith Center like today's possible.