With Reggie Bullock out, UNC got a huge all-around effort from P.J. Hairston and held on to beat UNLV 79-73.
This was a huge win for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, UNLV is likely going to hang around in the RPI Top 50, maybe even the top 30 so his is a valuable win in that respect. Secondly, UNC had to play this game without arguably it's most consistent player in Reggie Bullock who suffered a mild concussion on Thursday when he collided with James Michael McAdoo in practice. On paper this was a huge loss but UNC got huge games out of multiple players to take early control of the contest did fend off a couple of UNLV runs to pull out the six point win.
Bullock's absence opened the door for P.J. Hairston to make the start at wing forward. The sophomore from Greensboro made the most of the opportunity which some really surprising play on the defensive end. Hairston seemed like he was everywhere ending the day with four steals and two drawn charges to go along with 15 points. Four of those points came on offensive putbacks. Hairston is easily the one player on this team who is simply unafraid. At one point he mixed it up with 6-8, 240 pound Anthony Bennett in the post.
UNC opened the game up with an intense effort on the defensive end which kept UNLV off-balanced to the point of forcing a variety of bad shots. It marked the first time this season, the Tar Heels had opened up in such an impressive fashion. Even Desmond Hubert got into the act making a few solid defensive plays and a bona fide offensive move to the basket. The lead reached 15 points before UNLV whittled it down to nine at the half and all of this with McAdoo going 1-8 from the floor.
In the second half, UNLV played much better and even took the lead at 49-48 but UNC responded to take the lead back. McAdoo followed up an atrocious first half with 4-5 shooting in the second stanza and two very good assists to his teammates resulting in baskets. UNLV would close to within one at 57-56 but again UNC responded taking the lead out to 71-64 and hitting enough free throws to seal the win. Dexter Strickland led the Heels with 16 points, Marcus Paige had 15 and Brice Johnson came up with a productive outing to the tune of 12 points, four rebounds and three steals.
Granted this performance was far from perfect and the offense continues to be very haphazard. It is very difficult to figure out at times what UNC is trying to do on offense and I get the uneasy impression the players on the court feel the same way. UNLV is a decent team on the defensive end and did a great job limiting UNC's perimeter looks. Strickland and Paige tried to penetrate with mixed results and the Heels got some good looks in transition. In the end, the offense seems a little opportunistic, depending more on defensive breakdowns, much like a football defense depending on turnovers.
Regardless of the flaws this is a great win. It is a resume win but probably far more important, it should be a nice confidence booster going forward. There were several players who did good things today and it is immensely helpful, heading into ACC play to notch a win like this. Remember, in 2010, the Charleston loss came at the cusp of ACC play and may have been partly responsible for the eventual tailspin. Getting a tough, hard fought win against a probable NCAA Tournament team will hopefully have an impact on propelling the development of this team forward.