LAS VEGAS -- UNLV just beat the top-ranked team in the country -- holding North Carolina’s trio of almost-NBAers to 11-of-34 shooting, exposing the Tar Heels’ perimeter defense, dominating on the backboards.
So where do the Rebels go from here?
“To Santa Barbara, on Wednesday,’’ sophomore Mike Moser said with a laugh.
Don’t get him wrong. There was plenty of grinning and back-slapping and congratulating, even after the boisterous, chanting, UNLV crowd stormed the Orleans Arena court after their team’s dominating 90-80 victory in the championship game of the Las Vegas Invitational.
But one of the reasons the Rebels (7-0) were able to win Saturday night was because the game wasn’t about this particular win -- but building toward more victories like this one.
“We don’t want one game to define our program,’’ first-year coach Dave Rice said. “It is a huge win for us, but what we want is to be judged on is the consistency over our nonconference season, over our conference season, over the course of years. That’s what consistency is all about.
“But to do that, we have to get some of these huge wins.”
With former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian in attendance (along with Vegas native Shabazz Muhammad, the nation's No. 1 recruit in the class of 2012), the undefeated Rebels -- which returned four starters from last year’s NCAA tournament team, plus added Moser, a UCLA transfer who sat out last season as per NCAA rules -- looked anything but intimidated by the No. 1 team in the nation.
They were the aggressors from the beginning, penetrating UNC’s soft perimeter, then kicking the ball out for 3-pointers again and again and again. When they weren’t connecting on 13 of their 32 tries from behind the arc (led by a career-high 28 points from Chace Stanback), they were outscoring UNC 20-6 on second-chance points.
When the Rebels opened the second half on a 14-0 run -- taking advantage of 10 straight missed shots by the Tar Heels, plus seven points from Moser (16 points, 18 rebounds) -- UNC never recovered.
“I think that’s the hardest we played, a complete game for 40 minutes, for sure,’’ Moser said. “We had to do that to beat them.”
By comparison, UNC (5-1) looked downright lackadaisical. When big men Tyler Zeller (1-for-6) and John Henson (4-for-12) weren’t getting the ball smacked out of their hands, point guard Kendall Marshall (7 points, 8 assists) was getting bullied on defense. Harrison Barnes -- who rolled his ankle late in the first half, but returned -- also had a frustrating night, finishing 6-for-16. And it didn’t help that UNC was in foul trouble from the get-go.
“We have to contain the ball,” Marshall said, “and not put ourselves in positions where we’re so far into help [defense] that they get wide open shots.”
Like with 2:48 to play, when they left open Stanback. His 3 gave the Rebels a game-sealing 12-point lead.
"I was surprised about a lot of things we didn't do,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We have to be stronger with the basketball. We have to guard the basketball better. We never did get the flow going. We have to be whole lot more patient."
As UNC’s players walked past the still-being-interviewed Rebels after the game, Moser was asked what the Tar Heels (and maybe everyone else?) learned about his team Saturday night.
“Maybe they didn’t know who we were,’’ he said. “... The guys we have are at the same level as those guys, we just happen to be on a different side of the country. They get a little more attention, but we definitely have some players down here in Vegas.”
The goal now: to prove that consistently, so they can win these types of matchups again and again.
“Right now, yeah, it is scary,’’ Moser said of the notoriety of the victory. “But in these next three days, I’m sure Coach will humble us right away. I’m positive. We play a team on Wednesday [UCSB] that we lost to last year, which is going to be just as big as this one for us. And we’re looking forward to that one, too.”
Robbi Pickeral covers North Carolina basketball for ESPN.com. You can follower her on Twitter at @bylinerp.