Finally, a signature win for the Tar Heels

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- In the first half, North Carolina coach Roy Williams was proud of his team’s defense.

In the second half, he was proud of his players’ toughness.

“You haven’t heard me say that yet this year,” the grinning coach said after his unranked team beat No. 20 UNLV 79-73 on Saturday.

But then again, his Tar Heels haven’t performed like this all year.

Playing without second-leading scorer Reggie Bullock, who sustained a mild concussion when he collided with teammate James Michael McAdoo during a Thursday evening practice, UNC displayed the stick-to-it-iveness, teamwork and poise it had consistently been lacking during its first dozen games.

The team that fell behind early in losses to Butler, at Indiana and at Texas had a double-digit lead just nine minutes into the showdown at the Smith Center.

The team that settled for chucking up (and missing) outside shots in those losses displayed more offensive balance, working the ball inside and scoring 14 points off offensive rebounds.

The team that played too-often half-hearted defense held UNLV to 37.9 percent shooting with 11 turnovers in the first half.

And when the Rebels came back to take the lead in the second half, the team that might have panicked just two short weeks ago instead jelled -- pushing back ahead thanks to a concentrated, McAdoo-led 8-2 run.

And staying there.

“I can’t stress to you all enough how much we wanted this win, how much we needed this win,” said the sophomore forward, who finished with 13 points and nine rebounds. “... We can still do things better -- but we wanted to prove to ourselves that we can come together and play a full game. We did that today.”

Senior Dexter Strickland said that last season’s loss to UNLV in Las Vegas -- when the Rebels handed then-top-ranked UNC its first loss of the year -- still rankled in the backs of the veteran Tar Heels’ minds.

But this win was more about the future than the past.

A loss would have meant entering ACC play next weekend without a signature nonconference win -- and lingering questions not only about whether the Tar Heels (who began the season ranked in the top 15) could really compete for an ACC title, but even for an NCAA tournament bid. It would have been bad not only for the team’s postseason résumé, but for its confidence.

“It was time for us to start playing like we knew we were capable of playing,” Strickland said.

Thus, there was a more intense feeling and focus in practice the previous couple of practices, players said, led and fed by Williams, who tends to get more fiery as conference play approaches.

“He was telling everybody, warning everybody, ‘You better be ready to play or you’re not going to play.’” Strickland said. “And we came ready to play.”

You could see it in the way sophomore P.J. Hairston (making his first career start, in place of Bullock) did a bit of everything -- pulling down four rebounds, grabbing four steals, taking two charges and scoring 15 points (including two free throws with 28 seconds left that helped seal the game after UNLV cut it to three).

And in the way sophomore forward Desmond Hubert, making his second straight start, played with more assurance, blocking a career-high three shots in a career-high 20 minutes while also displaying a couple of rare post moves on offense.

And in the way McAdoo recovered from a 1-for-8 first half to make key plays at a key time.

After UNLV’s Katin Reinhardt buried a 3-pointer with 14:02 left to give the Rebels a 49-48 lead, McAdoo scored six points and assisted on the other bucket during an 8-2 run that pushed the Tar Heels back ahead. The Rebels made it tight down the stretch, but they never led again.

“We dug ourselves into a hole in the first half,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, whose team saw its nine-game winning streak squashed despite the return of star forward Mike Moser, who dislocated his elbow Dec. 9; and despite a 15-point, 13-rebound outing from freshman forward Anthony Bennett.

“I was proud of our resiliency and being able to come back. ... We knew going into this game that we would get a great effort from North Carolina.”

The key now, according to the Tar Heels, is to make sure that “great effort” -- and consistency, defense, and toughness -- continues.

Especially now that they have shown that it can be done, and the potential they have to make their coach proud.

“I’d like to think they grew up 100 times, but who knows?” said Williams, who was happy to watch his team finally get to jump around and celebrate in the postgame locker room. “They’re 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kids. Who knows what they’re going to do tomorrow? We’ve been practicing 47 practices and played 13 games and that’s the first time we’ve really been able to feel good about what we did.”