Freshman Anthony Bennett had 15 points and 13 rebounds for UNLV, which led by a point briefly in the second half but spent most of the game in catch-up mode. Katin Reinhardt and Anthony Marshall each added 15 points for the Runnin' Rebels, who also got Mike Moser back from an elbow injury after a four-game absence.
Hairston started in place of Reggie Bullock, who sat out with a mild concussion suffered in Thursday's practice.
Hairston finished 5 for 10 from the field and hit two 3-pointers, but the 6-foot-5 sophomore turned in a strong overall performance that included four rebounds, four steals and two charges taken. He also knocked down two free throws with 28.5 seconds left that made it a two-possession game after the Runnin' Rebels had closed within 76-73. Strickland added two more free throws with 4.7 seconds left.
James Michael McAdoo shook off a poor first half and finished with 13 points and nine rebounds for the Tar Heels, who shot 51 percent for the game and scored 18 points off 17 turnovers by UNLV.
The Tar Heels fell out of the Top 25 after a loss at Texas and hadn't played since a 34-point home win over McNeese State three days before Christmas. They looked sharp and active early in this one, frequently getting hands in passing lanes or stripping the ball to build the first-half lead.
Then, after UNLV had closed within one midway through the second half, the Tar Heels put together a 7-1 spurt to re-build some of its lost early cushion. McAdoo scored a tough basket over Bennett inside, then freshman Marcus Paige followed with a jumper over Khem Birch.
Two minutes later, freshman Brice Johnson went up in traffic to rebound a missed shot from Strickland and score on a putback that made it 71-64 with 4:40 left.
Strickland hit a jumper near the foul line that barely beat the shot clock for a 74-68 lead with 1:30 left, though the Tar Heels couldn't close it out until those final seconds.
Moser, a 6-8 junior averaging about 11 points and eight rebounds, hadn't played since dislocating his right elbow at California on Dec. 9. He was hurt when his right arm bent awkwardly under an opposing player as the two dived on the court for a loose ball.
He recently returned to practice, entered this game at the 13:28 mark of the first half and knocked down a 3-pointer over J.P. Tokoto just before halftime to bring the Runnin' Rebels within 39-30. It was his only basket of the game.