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UNC Basketball: The Las Vegas Invitational Journal - Part 1

Thanksgiving Basketball in Sin City, through the eyes of a Tar Heel fan.

2018 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational - Michigan State v UCLA Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

48 hours into a trip to Vegas, the question I find myself constantly asking is “What on Earth is _____ doing here?” Examples: “What on Earth is a city doing here, in the middle of a desert?” “What on Earth is a pyramid doing here, in the middle of North America?” “What on Earth is Nassir Little doing here, not attacking a smaller defender?”

This question the Orleans Arena, the venue for the 2018 Las Vegas Invitational, and what will be the center of our world for the next two days. I will not burden our faithful readers with the details of my own Thanksgiving in Vegas (green olives in the stuffing, y’all), therefore we will begin with the arrival at the venue, and we will end with departure from the same.

Day 1: Texas

(all times Pacific)

3:15 pm: My father and I arrive at the Orleans, a massive complex that includes a hotel, casino, and more food courts than all the airports in North America combined. Access to parking is off gulp Cameron Avenue. My dad, UNC Class of ‘82, optimistically points out that it is a good omen connected to Cameron Johnson, not the undersized lair of the hated Dookies.

3:25: We move through the endless rows of slot machines, passing Tar Heel great Mitch Kupchak, before arriving at the entrance to the Orleans. It is set off in a corner of the massive complex, marked as if it were no more than a conference room. The oft repeated question emerges again: “What on Earth is a basketball arena doing here?”

3:30: Doors open and fans stream in. Tar Heel fans dominate the setting, with a healthy dose of Michigan State fans present as well. There are some Longhorns to be seen and if you squint really hard you might catch sight of someone who has seen the UCLA campus once.

3:40: The Orleans is a horseshoe-shaped arena with no seating (outside of a makeshift bleacher) behind one basket. 9,500-seat capacity and allegedly sold out, though it bears all the signs of a late-arriving crowd. On the court, a handful of players from each team get up some early shots. For Carolina it’s Luke Maye, Leaky Black, and Coby White. I’ve never read much into shootaround but it’s important to note that Coby hits EVERYTHING he puts up.

3:50: Shooters head back to the locker room. By press row, Eric Montross chats with Jim Jackson (hopefully not about the 1992 Sweet Sixteen). Celtics GM Danny Ainge takes a courtside seat.

4:00: Carolina comes out first, to loud applause from the Tar Heel faithful already present. Doug Gottlieb, pants on right way forward thank goodness, strolls along the sideline. Just as he does, Roy emerges to the expected cheers. Doug doesn’t say hi.

4:10: Out comes Texas. Shaka Smart heads right over to greet Roy. Jericho Sims starts off the layup line by slamming home a thunderous dunk.

4:15: The crowd has really taken shape at this point. It’s a great family-type atmosphere (lots of kids in the house). Carolina outnumbers Texas about 10 to 1, but there are an impressive number of Spartan faithful already present. UCLA is MIA.

4:20: The mighty Lennie Rosenbluth, a mainstay at Carolina games, passes by, accompanied by his wife. I am of the opinion that blue and white flowers should be strewn before him as he walks to his seat, but maybe that’s just because we passed the Luxor and Caesar’s Palace earlier.

4:25: Teams head into locker rooms. Texas finishes their warmup by each launching a half court shot which, to the fans sitting under their hoop, looks to be something of an air raid.

4:30: Teams re-emerge, starting lineups are announced. No National Anthem played (this may be because Vegas plans to secede, but it also may be because of the earlier games played today).

Times revert to Game Time

First Half

15:30 - UNC 17-4. Coby’s opening salvo is no surprise to anyone who watched shootaround. The defense is locked in. Feels like a blowout. Only Roach seems locked in for Texas.

10:20 - UNC 21-16. Texas has woken up and Carolina is turning it over. Roach came to this game for blood: His eyes are on the hoop every time he touches it.

5:32 - Texas 29-28. UNC crowd is furious at the refs, who (to the biased eye) appear to have it out for the Heels. Roach is attacking the tin like 2011 Derrick Rose. Nassir Little has had a smaller defender on him all game and hasn’t looked to drive it once. Almost nothing offensively from Kenny, nothing defensively from Luke. Hayes’ chasedown block of Luke was soul-sucking.

4:08 - UNC 36-29. The Coby White Show has UNC on an 8-0 run. Loudest the UNC crowd has been. We’ve yelled “Let’s Go Coby!” so many times we sound like Lakers fans.

Halftime - Texas 43-42. The Kerwin Roach Show has Texas leading at the half. After the Osetkowski buzzer beater, Ol’ Roy stood on the sideline fuming for a good 60 seconds before following his team into the locker room. Terrible close to the half by UNC. Turnovers and blown coverages on D.

Coby and Roach have been brilliant. Little hasn’t made an impact at all. Kenny in foul trouble early, as is Brooks. UNC has really struggled against the Texas pressure. On defense, Texas is much faster and is taking advantage of Carolina’s switches to take them off the dribble. This should be worse than it is: Texas has missed a lot of open looks.

2nd Half

18:25 - Texas 51-44. The looks Texas was missing in the first half are dropping now. Carolina scrambling on defense.

Under 12:00 TO - Texas 62-55 - Can’t get a stop to save our lives. Texas in a real rhythm shooting the ball. It’s hard to believe that we started off the game locked in defensively. Michigan State has come out to watch and are eyeing both teams like they’re Thanksgiving appetizers.

8:35 - Texas 73-65. Roach stuffs Cam’s turkey. Safe to say Cameron Avenue is closed on Thanksgiving.

7:00 - Texas 80-70. My Dad turns to me: “We need to halve this lead by the five minute mark.”

5:47 - Texas 80-78. Message received, Dad. Thunderous 8-0 UNC run led by Coby and a finally emerged Little. Coby roars to the UNC crowd behind the bench after drilling a three. Timeout Texas. Game on.

3:59 - Texas 86-78. Longhorns punch right back, with Roach knocking down a jumper and setting up two layups for teammates. That dude is the truth.

2:14 - Texas 87-85. Coby knocks down two free throws. Need a stop and a good shot.

:36 - Texas 88-85. UNC gets the stop they needed, but all that comes of it is a Coby step-back three. Hard to blame him for wanting to b the hero (it’s been his night) but that’s not the shot. Coleman makes 1 of 2 or Texas. Timeout UNC.

:21 - Texas 90-85. Roy calls the play for Luke, who gets his man in the air and fires a three that looked good, but rattled out. Texas bangs in two free throws and it’s looking like curtains.

Final - Texas 92-89

Dad: “What is it about Texas, man?”

The crowd gives the Heels a hand as they trudge back to the locker room. Better luck tomorrow boys. An older gentleman seated behind us remarks that we showed good fight in the second half. That’s undeniably true: We could’ve really folded when Texas caught fire but didn’t. This team, even with off nights for Luke, Kenny, and Nassir, can still put up points in a hurry. That said: Holy freakin’ turnovers and dribble drive D, Batman.

The Carolina crowd shuffles out, leaving the sea of Michigan State fans in our wake (again, UCLA has made no appearance). Here’s hoping Sparty loses: Those two fanbases together tomorrow would make quite the atmosphere.

As we depart the arena, a Carolina fan wearing a Sean May jersey and a Bellagio hat shakes his head. “I should’ve known,” he says dejectedly. “We ALWAYS lose when we come here.” Another fan explains to us on the escalator that he’s now sen UNC lose three games in a row in Vegas: To UNLV in 2011, to Kentucky in 2016, and now to Texas. In Vegas, that’s what’s known as a “cold streak.” All streaks must come to an end. Here’s hoping that end comes tomorrow.