Dexter Strickland scored a season-high 16 points to help lead UNC to a victory against UNLV.
CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina earned its most impressive victory of the season earlier today in a 79-73 triumph against UNLV. Here's the game story. And, without further delay, the look back …
Three things to take away from the Tar Heels’ victory:
1. Can this victory turn around UNC’s season?
The Tar Heels weren’t exactly facing a dire situation had they lost today. There still would have been plenty of opportunities for UNC to record some marquee victories, plenty of time for the Heels to put together a solid resume for the NCAA tournament. But this was UNC’s final chance for a significant non-conference win, and after disappointing performances in losses against Butler, Indiana and Texas, the Heels needed a victory like this one, against a quality opponent. Now the question is how much this will help the Heels going forward. Will this serve as the kind of turning point the Heels hope it will be? Stay tuned …
2. We learned more about UNC today than we learned in any other victory.
This was the Tar Heels’ 10th win of the season but, as I’ve written before, many of those victories came without lasting lessons. It’s one thing to cruise to a lopsided win against an overmatched opponent. It’s another to grind out a win, shorthanded, against the 20th-ranked team in the country. Some things we learned about the Heels: They can play with sustained energy and enthusiasm. They can play good defense when they want to. They can work the ball inside and execute the kind of inside-out offense that Williams wants to see. They can persevere through difficult circumstances to win a game against a difficult opponent.
3. P.J. Hairston took a major step toward becoming the player UNC needs him to be.
It will take some time to learn whether this victory serves as a catalyst for the Heels, just like it will take some time to learn whether this was a turning-point performance for Hairston. As it is, this was probably the best game of his collegiate career. He finished with 15 points, but did so many things well. He provided a spark on defense, and finished with four steals. He put his two offensive rebounds back for second-chance points. He made timely shots. Hairston played 32 minutes and had the difficult task of stepping into the starting lineup in place of Reggie Bullock, who sat out with a concussion. Hairston had to play well for UNC to win, and he did.
BY THE NUMBERS
5 – number of UNC players who scored in double figures, led by Dexter Strickland’s season-high 16 points.
6 – consecutive points James Michael McAdoo scored after UNLV took a one-point lead in the second half.
12 – steals for the Tar Heels, who scored 18 points off of turnovers.
33 – free throws UNC attempted. The Heels made 20 of those, while UNLV was 11-for-21 from the line.
40 – points in the paint for UNC, which made 20 of its 24 field goal attempts in the paint.
50.9 – field goal percentage for UNC, which held UNLV to 45.8 percent shooting.
UNC PLAYER OF THE GAME
Come on down, P.J. Hairston. His final line: 15 points, four steals, four rebounds, one assist, no turnovers in 32 minutes. Not bad.
OBSERVATIONS AND NOTES
--From the start on Saturday, North Carolina played with the kind of energy and intensity that it rarely possessed during the first 12 games of the season. The Tar Heels appeared to feed off of a Smith Center crowd that was the loudest and most energized it has been this season. In his first collegiate start, Hairston was also a catalyst. He remained active throughout his 32 minutes, but was especially active early on defensively and on rebounds. Three of his four steals came during the first half.
--Roy Williams’ faith in Desmond Hubert paid off on Saturday. Hubert, the sophomore forward, has struggled at times this season but he had his most productive game of the season against UNLV. In a career-high 20 minutes, Hubert blocked three shots, had three rebounds and three points. Defensively, he altered several shots that he didn’t block. Williams praised Hubert’s play but said he’d like for him to be even more active. “He’s got another 100 levels of intensity he can go to,” Williams said. “I need him to be active. I need him to be at ready, all the time. He’s got to have his motor going at 100 miles an hour. He can’t be going at 50.”
--Sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo has often questioned why the Tar Heels’ productive practices haven’t translated to the court during games. But McAdoo said UNC played on Saturday even better than it usually does in practice. “The team that showed up today I think is even better that what we see in practice,” McAdoo said. “It’s just kind of encouraging to know that we can take it up another notch.”
--Anthony Bennett was one of three UNLV players who finished with 15 points, but few of those came easily for him. He made six of his 16 attempts from the field and had a pair of turnovers. Bennett, the Rebels’ freshman forward, entered the game averaging nearly 20 points per game.
--Former UNC coach Matt Doherty watched the game from a seat behind the Tar Heels’ bench. He received a nice ovation when he was shown on the video board during a timeout in the first half. Under his name were the words “welcome home.”
--The victory was UNC’s 63rd consecutive in a non-conference game at the Smith Center. UNC hasn’t lost a non-conference game at home since 2005.
“Well, needless to say we feel very good. It was fun to have some excitement in that locker room. We haven’t been able to have that yet this year. And that’s what you coach for … those are the kinds of moments that I coach for so I can see kids enjoying themselves and feeling some satisfaction of doing some things that were fairly difficult to do.”
“I’d like to think they grew up a hundred times but who knows. They’re 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kids. Who knows what they’re going to do tomorrow? Again, we’ve been practicing 47 practices and played 13 games and that’s the first time that we’ve really been able to feel really good about what we did. So that’s the nice part about it.” –Williams
“Because we played with such a sense of urgency on the defensive end, and we were attacking them on the defensive end, making them turn over the ball. We were doing the little things, as far as taking charges, getting to the loose balls, scrapping, boxing out and just doing everything.” –P.J. Hairston on why this was UNC’s best defensive effort of the season
“The happiest I’ve ever seen coach after a game this season. So it was great. As soon as he walked in, we just jumped around, had fun. He was proud of us, but we still have some things we need to work on defensively and offensively.” –Hairston
“I think every game like this is a great chance for us freshmen to grow up. Brice came in and coach got on him once or twice and then he came back in and responded, and responded immediately. Which is great to see. And then a couple of times, coach got on me, and still I was able to respond and stuff like that. So games like this are definitely good for us because we’re going to see a lot of them coming up. It’s just the nature of the game throughout conference play.” –Marcus Paige
“It was electric. It was kind of exciting. I mean, just seeing him jump around is amazing. I’ve never seen him do that.” –Brice Johnson, on the postgame scene inside the UNC locker room
Conference play is upon us. UNC won’t play for a while but will return from a break on Jan. 6 at Virginia. From here on out, it’s nothing but ACC games for the Tar Heels.