Take a look around. For the first time this season, beat writers and columnists will describe North Carolina with words like "courageous," "poised" and "resolute."
Playing with enormous passion and buoyed by an energetic — and likely tired of their families — Smith Center crowd, the Tar Heels defeated No. 20 UNLV this afternoon 79-73. Carolina entered the game without stalwart junior Reggie Bullock, who sat out after suffering a concussion in practice. But P.J. Hairston, in his first career start, scored 15 points and ripped away four steals while senior Dexter Strickland led all scorers with 16 points.
UNC's defense facilitated the victory. Carolina held the Runnin' Rebels to 38 percent shooting in the first half, enabling the Tar Heels to open up a nine-point advantage at the break that they nursed to the finish line. UNLV found its shooting touch in the second half, knocking in 5-for-7 on threes, but Carolina thwarted some of the damage by forcing 17 turnovers. Star freshman Anthony Bennett shot just 6-for-16 en route to 15 points, although he did make an impression.
Following the game, Tar Heel players ran through the tunnel celebrating loudly. Roy Williams noted that, for the first time this season, his team felt a sense of satisfaction after a performance. They chose an opportune moment, because now the Heels boast a strong non-conference win and can turn their attention to the ACC schedule on an encouraging note. In next week's column I'll handicap their chances against their first few conference opponents.
The Heels take this week off and travel to Virginia next Sunday night. Click here to view the UNC/UNLV box score.