The Rebels (6-0) knocked down three early 3-pointers to jump out to a 11-4 lead and increased their advantage to 17-9, but the Tar Heels (5-1) answered with a 9-0 spurt to take their first lead at 18-17. The lead changed hands several more times before UNC increased its margin to six points and eventually took a 42-38 lead into halftime.
UNLV started the second half with a 14-0 explosion to secure a double-digit lead and never let North Carolina closer than four points. UNC cut its deficit 62-58 with 10:19 remaining, but the Rebels responded with a 10-2 spurt and the Tar Heels would get no closer than seven points the rest of the way.
P.J. Hairston and Harrison Barnes both scored 15 points for North Carolina, while Dexter Strickland added 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting. John Henson contributed 11 points and eight rebounds.
Chace Stanback led all scorers with a career-high 28 points to pace UNLV. Mike Moser (18 rebounds) and Oscar Bellfield both added 16 points.
UNLV shot 43.7 percent from the floor (31-of-71), including a 40.6 mark from 3-point territory (13-of-32). UNC connected on 42.4 percent of its field goal attempts (28-of-66), knocking down 30.6 percent in the second half after shooting 56.7 percent to start the game. The Rebels outrebounded UNC, 48-39.
INSIDE THE GAME
Anatomy of a Run
UNLV's 16-0 run – two points to close the first half and 14 to open the second – only took four minutes and 39 seconds to play out, but long enough to shift the momentum completely in the local team's favor.
During that spurt, UNLV connected on 5-of-8 field goal attempts, including a pair of 3-pointers, and kept two possessions alive with offensive rebounds. The Rebels converted all four of their free throw opportunities and forced UNC into 11 straight misses from the floor.
It seemed as though North Carolina relaxed ever so slightly coming out of halftime after battling back from an eight-point deficit to take the lead. But UNLV believed that they could pull the biggest upset of November by getting back to how they started the game.
"That was huge," Moser said. "We were so amped up in the locker room just because we knew there were so many things that we could do that we weren't doing. We finally figured it out and were able to get out there and jump on their backs early."
It's going to be difficult enough for North Carolina to beat solid teams this season when two of the Big Three – Henson, Barnes and Tyler Zeller – have off nights, but it will be near impossible to win when all three play poorly. Saturday night provided example No. 1.
The triumvirate combined to score 31 points – 19 points below its season average – on 11-of-34 shooting. While the Rebels dropped defenders into the paint to frustrate Zeller and Henson, Barnes had a difficult time getting into a rhythm and forced several shots late in the second half as UNC's deficit increased.
For Zeller, Saturday's loss marked the end to a forgettable trip to Sin City. The senior forward scored 17 total points on 5-of-18 shooting and pulled down just 12 rebounds over the weekend.
"I missed a few shots in the beginning and then they were just collapsing inside," Zeller said. "They made it very tough to get shots up."
Guards Step Up
UNLV's defensive strategy early was to collapse on UNC's post players and force the Tar Heels to create from the outside in. That plan ultimately worked, but North Carolina's backcourt made the Rebels think twice about their decision.
Kendall Marshall (7 pts, 8 asts) and Reggie Bullock (8 pts) joined Strickland and Hairston Marshall in sparking a 23-10 run after UNC fell behind eight early. That quartet scored 22 of UNC's first 32 points and finished with 42 points overall.
For the second game in a row, Hairston provided an offensive boost from the 3-point line. The freshman guard was 3-of-5 from long range on Saturday and connected on 8-of-13 treys for the two games in Vegas.
"Once I get in, I'm just getting into the rhythm of the game and going and playing as hard as everybody else does," Hairston said. "Just be ready to play – that's what Coach tells me. When he calls my name, that's when I have to go and do what I can do to help the team win."
It was only a matter of time before poor free throw shooting caught up with North Carolina.
The Tar Heels only connected on 20-of-33 attempts from the charity stripe against UNLV, including a 15-of-25 effort in the second half. UNC could have cut into the Rebels' margin on several occasions after their 14-0 spurt, but failed to capitalize on the opportunity.
Trailing 54-46 with 14:14 to play, UNC's James Michael McAdoo stepped to the free throw line and missed three of his four shots on consecutive possessions. And when the Tar Heels crept back to within 82-74 with 2:06 remaining, their free throw shooting prevented a late rally from occurring as they missed four attempts with the clock winding down.
"We've just got to be able to step up and knock them down," Zeller said. "Everybody's been struggling, so you can't really point your finger at any one person. The team in general has to be able to step up and hit them."