“It was fun to have some excitement in that locker room again. We haven’t been able to have that this year,” Williams said. “That’s what you coach for, to see kids’ satisfaction for doing some things that were fairly difficult to do.”
Among the difficult things unranked UNC had to do to win were finding ways to make up for the lost scoring and defensive presence in Bullock and compete against a strong opponent who was on a nine-game winning streak.
In doing that, North Carolina showed the most growth defensively.
“We played the best defense that we’ve played all year long in the first half today,” Williams said. “We were really good defensively in the first half. In the second half, I was really proud of our toughness. You haven’t heard me say that yet this year. It was a sort of survival thing there at the end.”
Sophomore P.J. Hairston, who made his first career start in place of Bullock, said that toughness came from the team’s sense of urgency.
“We were attacking them on the defensive end and making them turn over the ball,” Hairston said. “We were doing the little things as far as taking charges, getting to the loose balls, scrapping, boxing out and just doing everything it takes to win.”
Hairston led UNC with four steals, and freshman Brice Johnson came off the bench for three.
Teammates Desmond Hubert, Dexter Strickland, Marcus Paige, Leslie McDonald and J.P. Tokoto all also had one steal each as the Tar Heels made their presence as a group.
But for Hairston, who scored 15 points — including two of North Carolina’s three 3-pointers — this match was about stepping up to fill a hole.
“Knowing that Reggie is one of the best defenders on the team, I knew that I had to step up defensively to basically make up for him being out,” Hairston said. “I had to pick it up on both ends.
“On the offensive end, getting to the offensive board and taking charges, and then getting steals on the other end.”
In addition to having its strongest defensive game of the season, UNC had four more players who got to the offensive board and scored in the double digits. McAdoo scored 13 points, and Paige and Johnson each had 12 in the victory. Strickland led the team with 16.
Though the Tar Heels led for much of the contest, UNLV worked within three points of UNC with 30.9 seconds to go.
But a foul on Hairston and his two subsequent free throws all but secured the UNC win.
“This was a big win, we needed this win, especially from the loss we took at Texas,” Hairston said. “We just wanted to get a big win and build momentum and confidence in everyone. We just want to take it to the ACC and build it that way.
“We know what we can do defensively now, and if we play consistently now, there’ll be a lot of teams that’ll be nervous to play us that way.”