Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012 | 4:14 p.m.
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The trouble started immediately. Although it was North Carolina missing a starter and No. 20 UNLV getting one back, the Tar Heels were the ones who looked like they knew what they were doing.
Not "played like a top-10 team" or even "played great." They just looked like they knew what they wanted to run on offense and how to guard their opponent, which is more than the Rebels (11-2) could say in the first 10 minutes and most of the first half.
There also were problems down the stretch — namely missed free throws, including two front ends on one-and-ones — but it was that start that was most disconcerting in UNLV’s 79-73 loss to UNC (10-3) at the Dean Smith Center on Saturday.
The poor start is a familiar refrain for this team, and the most troubling part is no one has concrete answers. With 20,888 people filling this arena, it’s a tough place to play. But it’s not like that could have completely surprised UNLV.
Rebels senior Anthony Marshall, who was one of three Rebels to score 15 points and dished out eight assists with one turnover, said before the game that road trips and close wins at Portland, at Cal and at UTEP prepared the team for this game. Afterward, he said this loss would prepare the Rebels for road trips to New Mexico, San Diego State and Colorado State, which are three of UNLV’s first four conference games.
Those environments will be more hostile than anything the Rebels have seen this year, so it’s important for them to learn from the loss to make steps forward. But what exactly went wrong?
Marshall said the Rebels’ youth and hesitancy were problems.
“We have a real young team, so guys came out back on their heels and didn’t really know what to expect,” Marshall said.
One of those young players, freshman Anthony Bennett disagreed.
“Everybody went out there and did what he had to do,” said Bennett, who had 15 points and 13 rebounds. “No one was scared; no one was playing back on their heels. I don’t know what happened.”
Something that they and UNLV coach Dave Rice agreed on was that things changed when the Rebels started attacking the basket.
“Once we did that, we settled down and did a much better job,” Rice said.
Lucky to be trailing by only nine at halftime after shooting 38 percent from the field and committing 11 turnovers, UNLV changed the momentum and took its only lead of the game, 49-48, on a 3-pointer from Katin Reinhardt with 14:02 remaining.
Reinhardt was the third Rebel to score 15, and both he and sophomore Bryce Dejean-Jones, who finished with 14 points, looked better as the game progressed. They started a combined 3-for-10 and finished 10-for-21.
North Carolina, which played without second-leading scorer Reggie Bullock (mild concussion), took the lead back on the next possession. The margin bounced from one to three a few times until UNC went on a 5-0 run and kept UNLV at arm’s length most of the rest of the way.
The Tar Heels could have made the finish much easier on themselves, and the Rebels could have pulled back into it. A big reason neither of those things happened was missed free throws. In the final six minutes, UNLV was 5-for-10 at the free-throw line, including senior Justin Hawkins and Dejean-Jones both missing the front ends of one-and-one opportunities.
During that same stretch, UNC was 7-for-13 at the line, a mark that was good enough to win but by no means good. Like Rice, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams has a lot of young faces searching for consistency, and he was just happy to come out on the right side.
“I’d like to think (we) grew up 100 times, but who knows?” Williams said. “They’re 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kids. Who knows what they’re going to do tomorrow? We’ve been practicing in 47 practices and 14 games, and that’s the first time we’ve been able to feel really good about what we did. That’s the nice part about it.”
This was the first big nonconference victory for a team that previously lost to Butler, Indiana and Texas. It’s a win the Tar Heels hope to build on as they begin play in the ACC.
Similarly, UNLV wants to learn something from this loss and grow as a team. Part of that may simply be personnel. This was the first game the Rebels played with a full complement of players, as junior forward Mike Moser returned less than three weeks after suffering a dislocated elbow at Cal. Though he said he wasn’t limited, Moser looked rusty and fouled out in 12 minutes with three points while playing spot minutes for Bennett and Khem Birch.
Other than getting the guys Rice wants on the court and fine-tuning the rotation, though, what does UNLV learn from this loss, particularly the bad start? That the Rebels need to play better on the road? They knew that when they stepped off the plane.
The fact that that knowledge didn’t translate to any execution at the start or any answers after the end is the moral of the story. UNLV deserves a lot of credit for turning the game around, outplaying UNC for parts of the second half and giving itself a chance to win. No nonconference opponent has won at the Dean Smith Center since 2005, so there’s plenty of company.
That said, UNLV’s concern is itself, not North Carolina. The Rebels got what was probably the Tar Heels’ best game of the season, just like they can expect from most Mountain West opponents. Their challenge is to match that effort, something that has to start at the same time as the game.