Updated 2 a.m.
LAS VEGAS — North Carolina’s first five games came with few major challenges for the Tar Heels, few moments that forced them to respond after an opponent imposed its will. Those moments came here on Saturday night, though, and came often against UNLV in the championship game of the Las Vegas Invitational.
And when it came time for top-ranked UNC to respond, it didn’t – couldn’t. The Runnin’ Rebels scored the first 14 points of the second half and the Heels never recovered during a 90-80 defeat, their first of the season.
“Needless to say, we’re extremely disappointed,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said afterward.
The Tar Heels successfully masked their flaws during five consecutive victories to start the season – games they won, all of them, by double-digits. But problems that seemed relatively small before played a large role in UNC’s defeat.
North Carolina’s defense, which was so dominant at times on Friday night during a 25-point victory against South Carolina, failed the Tar Heels (5-1) on Saturday. It failed the Heels especially on the outside, where UNLV (7-0) time and again used 3-pointers to quell Carolina’s efforts to rally.
The Rebels made 13 3-pointers, seven of which came in the second half. Just when it seemed like the Tar Heels were about to make a run, to seize control like they had in their five victories, UNLV seemed to make a 3.
Some of them came wide-open, others were lightly defended.
“We have to contain the ball,” Tar Heels’ sophomore Kendall Marshall said. “Not put ourselves in positions where we’re so far into help [defense] that they get wide open shots.”
The dagger might have come with 2:41 to play, with Carolina down 9. The Heels still had hope then, but they left open Chace Stanback, a 6-foot-8 UNLV senior who had already made three 3’s – two of them coming in the second half.
Stanback made his fourth at that moment, and he put the Rebels ahead 82-70 while the crowd at the Orleans Arena – just less than four miles from UNLV’s campus – erupted. The Tar Heels managed to cut the deficit to seven with about 30 seconds to play but came no closer.
In addition to the defensive lapses that at times has frustrated Williams early in the season, so too has UNC’s struggles to effectively rebound. The Tar Heels were outrebounded in victories against Michigan State and South Carolina, and UNC again failed more often than not to claim missed shots against UNLV, which outrebounded the Heels by 11.
“The backboards killed us,” Williams said. “There’s no question about that.”
The Rebels finished with 20 second-chance points, and Carolina with just six. Stanback led UNLV with 28 points. Oscar Bellfield added 13 and was one of three Rebels to score in double figures.
For UNC, Harrison Barnes and P.J. Hairston, a freshman, both scored 15 points. But they didn't come easily, especially for Barnes, who left the game briefly in the second half after he suffered an ankle injury. The Tar Heels shot 42.4 percent and settled for too many jump shots, Williams said.
It didn’t help matters that North Carolina found itself in foul trouble throughout. Tyler Zeller, the senior forward, went to the bench with about seven minutes to play in the first half after he collected his third foul. Zeller, John Henson and freshman James McAdoo all finished the game with four fouls.
Still, UNC had its chances. The Tar Heels, who trailed 17-9 at one point during the first half, rallied and led 42-38 at halftime. With Zeller in foul trouble, and UNLV clamping down defensively on Barnes and Henson, the Heels during the first half relied on their role players.
Dexter Strickland had 9 at the break, and Hairston, who scored 19 against South Carolina, had 8 at halftime. Strickland finished with 12 points.
Barnes, who entered the game as Carolina’s leading scorer, never did get going. He made just 6 of his 16 attempts from the field and missed a pair of free throws with about 30 seconds to play that would have cut the Rebels’ lead to 5.
Carolina’s defeat means that there will be no matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2 when the Tar Heels travel to second-ranked Kentucky next weekend. Before that game, Carolina hosts Wisconsin on Wednesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Inside a quiet and somber Tar Heels’ locker room late Saturday night, about 20 minutes after Rebels fans had swarmed the court when the final buzzer sounded, players sat inside their lockers and talked about the lessons they hoped to take from their first defeat.
“Hopefully [we] learn a lot,” Zeller said quietly. “We didn’t play anywhere near what we’re capable of. We’ve got to do a lot better. We’ve just got to go learn from our mistakes and hopefully grow.”