Prior to the loss in Charlottesville, the Tar Heels defeated then-No. 20 University of Nevada-Las Vegas 79-73, exacting revenge on a squad that upset top-ranked UNC in Las Vegas last season.
The win was the first against a ranked non-conference opponent this season and appeared to rejuvenate a North Carolina team that had struggled against other nonconference opponents — Indiana, Butler and Texas.
“We were really good defensively in the first half,” Williams said. “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.”
The Tar Heels were forced to play without junior guard Reggie Bullock after he suffered a mild concussion in practice before the game. Despite the absence of UNC’s second-leading scorer, the Tar Heels put together the most well-rounded defensive performance of the season.
“We were attacking them on the defensive end and making them turn over the ball,” sophomore guard P.J. 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 filled in for Bullock in the starting rotation and contributed 15 points in his first collegiate start.
Williams was especially happy with his team’s performance against UNLV, which came on the heels of a disappointing loss to unranked Texas 10 days earlier that resulted in his team dropping out of the Top 25.
The Tar Heels lost to Texas 85-67 on the road after shooting a season-low 31.3 percent from the field and committing 18 turnovers.
“They outran a running team,” Williams said after the loss. “We like to say we’re a running team, but we haven’t shown that yet. They did a better job of pushing the pace and getting us back on our heels. I think during the course of the game they were more aggressive than we were.”
After seeming to right the ship against UNLV, the Tar Heels failed to build on momentum, allowing the slow-paced Cavaliers to control the tempo.
The start of ACC play signaled a fresh start for the rookie-laden Tar Heels, but they will have to grow up quickly to turn things around.
“You can’t say you’re young anymore,” said Williams after the loss to UVa. “We’ve played 13 games.”
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