Rapid Reaction: UNC 79, UNLV 73

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina’s defense, focus and toughness have all been questioned this season.

Saturday at the Smith Center, the Tar Heels answered all in a big way -- with a big win.

Playing without its second-leading scorer, Reggie Bullock (concussion), UNC survived the comeback onslaught of No. 20 UNLV, winning 79-73. It marked a much-needed signature win heading into the ACC season -- and should give the Tar Heels a much-needed confidence boost.

Turning point: UNLV trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half, but came all the way back and took its first lead of the game when Katin Reinhardt buried a 3-pointer. But UNC responded with an 8-2 run -- during which James Michael McAdoo scored six points, and assisted Brice Johnson on another bucket -- to take back the lead, 56-51.

The Rebels never led again, but they sure did make it tight down the stretch. A Reinhardt 3 with 2:10 left cut it back to 72-68, but UNC senior Dexter Strickland beat the shot clock buzzer with a jumper in the lane, then made 2-of-4 free throws to keep his team ahead. UNC freshman Marcus Paige fouled Reinhardt on a 3-point try with 30.9 seconds left, but Reinhardt made only two of the three foul shots, and Tar Heel P.J. Hairston countered with two of his own to help seal the victory and break UNLV’s nine-game winning streak.

Key player(s): Strickland led the Tar Heels with 16 points, while Hairston had 15. The Tar Heels shot 50.9 percent for the game.

Anthony Bennett led UNLV with 15 points and 13 rebounds.

Noteworthy number: UNC has now won 63 straight nonconference games at the Smith Center. The last time it lost a non-ACC game here was Nov. 29, 2005, to Illinois.

Etc.: Star UNLV forward Mike Moser, who dislocated his elbow on Dec. 9 and whose status was a game-time decision, entered the game about seven minutes into the first half. His 3 just before the halftime buzzer cut UNC’s lead to 39-30 at the break. It was his only bucket of the game. … Bullock suffered his mild concussion during Thursday night’s practice when he collided with McAdoo.

Next up: UNLV will play Chicago State on Jan. 3. UNC opens ACC play at Virginia on Jan. 6.