CHAPEL HILL, N. C. — UNLV coach Dave Rice was quick to point out that he isn’t into moral victories.
Still, thanks to an ugly first half and some uncharacteristic bad free throw shooting, that was about all the 17th-ranked Runnin’ Rebels had to show for their long trip east here Saturday afternoon.
Sophomore guard P.J. Hairston scored 15 points, including a pair of key free throws with 28.5 seconds remaining, to go along with four steals and four assists as North Carolina snapped the UNLV’s nine-game winning streak, 79-73, at the Dean Smith Center.
Senior guard Dexter Strickland scored a game-high 16 points, including five in the final 1:01, for North Carolina (10-3) while forward James Michael McAdoo added 13 points and nine rebounds.
Freshman forward Anthony Bennett scored 15 points and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds for UNLV (11-2), which also got 15 points apiece from guards Anthony Marshall and Katin Reinhardt.
North Carolina, playing without starting swingman Reggie Bullock (mild concussion), led by as many as 15 points in the first half as UNLV started surprisingly listless. The Tar Heels forced 11 turnovers which they turned into 19 points while holding UNLV to just 38 percent shooting en route to a 39-30 halftime lead.
“Frustrated with the way we played the first 10 minutes,” Rice said simply.
But the Rebels regrouped at intermission and rallied to take a 49-48 lead on a 3-pointer by Reinhardt with 13:59 remaining.
“We were down 15 in the first half but we battled back together,” Rice said. “We gave ourselves a chance to win the game. We just didn’t make enough plays at the end.”
The Tar Heels took the lead for good a few moments later on a layup by McAdoo but the Rebels crept to within one point, 64-63, on a layup by Khem Birch with 7:33 left. However, North Carolina held UNLV to just a pair of free throws over the next five minutes while extending its lead to seven points, 72-65, and UNLV never got any closer than three points the rest of the way.
UNLV, which came into the game shooting 72.2 percent from the free throw line, made just 11 of 21 free throw attempts (52.4 percent).
“Losing hurts but we can’t let this game affect the next one,” Marshall, who also finished with eight assists and just one turnover in 37 minutes of action, said.
Marshall later tweeted comments that were echoed by Rice on the post-game radio broadcast.
“We go into every game expecting to win & we’re not satisfied with moral victories but I’m proud of the fact we fought back,” Marshall tweeted. “A lot to take away from this game both good & bad … but games like this will help us in the end. We start off conference 3 of our first 4 games will be on the road & they will be like tonight. This game will really help us. … Better now then at the end of March … we live to fight another day. Still a lot of basketball to be played.”
“There were a lot positives to come out of this game,” Rice said. “Way more good than bad.”
One was the surprising appearance of junior forward Mike Moser less than three weeks after suffering a gruesome dislocated elbow in a Dec. 9 win at Cal that at the time looked like it had the potential to be season-ending.
Moser, his right elbow heavily wrapped, scored three points and grabbed one rebound in 12 minutes before fouling out. He nailed a 3-pointer just before halftime to cut Carolina’s lead to single-digits.
“He’s not 100 percent now but just having him out there was huge,” Marshall said.
The Rebels return to action on Thursday night at 7 p.m. against Chicago State (3-12) at the Thomas & Mack Center.
–MyLVsports.com staff report