North Carolina gets by No. 20 UNLV, 79-73

Dec. 30, 2012 @ 05:01 AM

Just a few hours before North Carolina (10-3) hosted No. 20 UNLV (11-2), it was announced junior starting guard Reggie Bullock would miss the game with a concussion suffered in Thursday’s practice. Despite that, the Tar Heels toughed their way to a 79-73 victory.

Sophomore P.J. Hairston got his first career start in Bullock’s place and had 15 points and a career-high four steals. And defense was the key to Carolina’s big win, its first win over a ranked opponent this year.

Carolina held UNLV to 38 percent shooting in the first half (45.8 percent for the game) and forcing 17 turnovers (12 of which were UNC steals). Early, UNC held UNLV to just six points in the first 9:17 of game action and led by as many as 15 points in the first half (at the 2:55 mark).

“We played the best defense we’ve played all year long in the first half today,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said.

In the second half, it didn’t take long for UNLV to cut into UNC’s lead. The Runnin’ Rebels mounted a 22-8 run spanning both halves to tie the game with 14:28 remaining, and even took a one-point lead at the 14:02 mark. But they wouldn’t lead again as James Michael McAdoo scored six straight points in the next 1:16 to give UNC a five-point lead back. McAdoo, who struggled in the first half with just three points on 1-of-8 shooting, scored or assisted on 12 of Carolina’s first 17 second-half points.

“The thing I told him is just slow down. He tries to go so fast and wants to do so well,” Williams said of his star big man. “He wants to be a great player, wants to make every shot, but he just goes so fast instead of taking that extra split second and that makes a difference: in your foundation, in your balance everything. He made some big plays for us, to say the least.”

Despite McAdoo’s run, Carolina still couldn’t manage to pull away from UNLV, and a put-back by UNLV’s Khem Birch cut the UNC lead to one point with 7:32 remaining. McAdoo scored again to put Carolina up three, and Carolina went on a 7-1 run to take a seven-point lead. UNLV couldn’t cut it below four points until the 30-second mark when freshman Marcus Paige fouled UNLV’s Katin Reinhardt on a three-point attempt. He made 2-of-3 to cut UNC’s lead to three.

Carolina would come away with just one or no points on six out of seven trips to the line in the final 5:43, but Hairston was the lone exception as he knocked down 2-of-2 with 28 seconds left and Carolina up just three points to essentially seal the win.

Veteran combo guard Dexter Strickland led Carolina with 16 points, while Hairston had 15 and McAdoo added 13 (plus a team-high nine rebounds). Carolina’s freshmen had some nice moments as well. Paige had 12 points (6-of-8 free throws) and a team-high four assists. Forward Brice Johnson added 12 points in just 15 minutes off the bench.

UNLV was led by freshman Anthony Bennett, who led the nation’s freshmen in scoring: he had 15 points on 6-of-16 shooting and added 13 rebounds. Reinhardt hit 4-of-5 three-pointers and had 15 points, while Anthony Marshall had 15 points, eight assists and just one turnover. Bryce Dejean-Jones added 14 points for UNLV.

The Tar Heels really needed this win, and they played with a sense of urgency that they haven’t had all season. Williams was pleased with his team’s effort, and for once, the up-and-down Tar Heels got to enjoy a postgame celebration. But he was most pleased that when things got difficult in the second half, his team came through.

“In the second half, I was really proud of our toughness,” Williams said. “You haven’t heard me say that all year.”