Wrap-up: Heels notch first signature win of season vs. UNLV
UNC 79, UNLV 73
On paper this game looked to be a bad match-up for the Heels. About an hour before the game, word came that Reggie Bullock had suffered a minor concussion and wouldn’t be playing. To rephrase, the team’s second-leading scorer and possibly best defender wasn’t going to suit up against a ranked UNLV team that beat LAST YEAR’s top-ranked squad by 10. Oh yeah, and Mike Moser, the guy who did most of the damage for the Runnin’ Rebels a year earlier, was returning to a lineup that already included the best freshmen in the country, Anthony Bennett.
Despite these red flags, the Tar Heels were more prepared and had control of the tightly contested game for most of the 40 minutes Saturday. Even when the Rebels led by a point midway through the second half, Carolina didn’t let the wheels fall off like it had in its three losses this season. P.J. Hairston said after the game, “When I found out Reggie wasn’t playing because of the concussion, it clicked to me that I have to step up. Being that Reggie is one of the best defenders on the team, I knew I had to step up defensively and basically make up for Reggie being out.”
AND HE ACTUALLY DID! One of my qualms with this year’s team has been that they say all the right things in post-game interviews about stepping up on D or making changes in their intensity, but they don’t back it up. It’s such a breath of fresh air to see Hairston play up to his potential. His career-high four steals were a big part of the how the Heels were able to compensate for being overmatched down low. It was a great win. Looks like Benn’s reverse jinx did the trick.
- Brice Johnson got back to his hyper-scoring ways with 12 points in 15 minutes of PT. As soon as he came in the first half he snatched an offensive board and quickly put it back for two. He kissed it off the glass without ever bringing it down. He’s not quite the same physically, but his game is sprinkled with dashes of Antawn Jamison with how quick he puts up shots and how he keeps the ball high. This kid will one day become your favorite player if he isn’t already. (Spoiler alert: He’s already my favorite.)
- Desmond Hubert had an awesome game. It doesn’t show up in the box score but after seeing him perform against a quality frontcourt in UNLV, I think Hubert has earned the starting forward spot until further notice. Right out of the gate, Hubert had two blocks in the first minute of gametime, one against Anthony Bennett, and he was the most consistent frontcourt player for the Heels defensively the entire game. I guess what he’s doing in practice is finally translating to games.
- UNC was horrible from the line yet again, shooting 20-33 for 60 percent. The saving grace was that UNLV was worse. The Runnin’ Rebels hit 52 percent of their freebies going 11-21. This really was the difference in the game. Dexter Strickland was seemingly “automatic” at hitting one of two in the final minutes. If the Heels improved to even 70 percent, that’s an extra three points and a more comfortable margin of victory/error depending on how you see it.
- The offense was running at a more Roy-like speed. We saw more small ball and what this Rafters editor considers the smallest lineup I’ve ever seen on the floor for Carolina, period. In the second half with about five minutes left, the players on the floor were Hairston, Strickland, McDonald, Paige and Johnson. After a minute or so of this lineup, Johnson came out and McAdoo checked in for some more small ball. UNC runs the floor better with four guards and we’ll probably see this a lot throughout the season. It’s interesting that Roy trusts this kind of lineup when then game is still being contested late.
- Defense you say? Every Tar Heel except Joel James – who only played three minutes – and JMM tallied at least one steal in the game. When this squad plays (read: tries hard on) defense it looks a lot different than last year, when Carolina would seemingly block every shot in the lane. This year – with a more guard-heavy look – it’s all about the strip before the shot even goes up.
- Speaking of Joel James, he’s taken a step back. He gets graded on a curve, obviously, due to his inexperience, but his first 20 seconds on the court netted him a foul on both the defensive and offensive ends of the court. Roy took notice and he barely saw the floor.
Player of the Game: P.J. Hairston (15 pts, 4 rebs, 1 ast, 4 stls, 0 TOs) P.J. was all over the court getting offensive boards and corralling loose balls, oh, and those career-high four steals.
Player of the Game II: Desmond Hubert (3 pts, 3 rebs, 3 blks, 1 stl) Hubert was stalwart when Carolina got shaky at times. He gives me a safe feeling.
Play of the Game: We’d like to give this to one of P.J.’s hustle plays, but couldn’t decide on the best. Instead we’re going to give James Michael McAdoo some credit. After UNC surrendered their 9 point halftime lead around the 14:00 mark in the second half, down 49-48, JMM grabs an offensive rebound from a missed Brice Johnson jumper and converts giving UNC the lead. On the next UNLV possession, Johnson gets a steal and JMM converts a jumper. After UNLV again comes up empty, JMM gets to the line on the next possession and makes two FTs. Six unanswered points by a team and player whose toughness we’ve questioned. UNLV would hang around and pull it within one on several occasions, but that sequence was what the Heels showed flashes of in near comebacks against Butler and Texas but weren’t able to pull off.
Not Top 10: Brice Johnson missed a wide open dunk in the second half while the game was very close. He’s still my fav, but damn, dude.