It was hard to see this one coming. If we had known just how good UNLV could be, this might not have been such a surprise.
On Saturday night in Las Vegas, UNLV knocked off No. 1 North Carolina 90-80. The Runnin’ Rebels were particularly impressive in the second half, outscoring the Tar Heels 52-38.
At halftime, it seemed like one of those games where the nation’s top team would gradually exert their will on UNLV in the second half and eventually lock up a win out west. With a few quick transition baskets off Rebels’ missed shots and with some second chance baskets off missed shots—things the Tar Heels do best—it would be enough for them to win on a night where they weren’t playing their best.
Those things didn’t happen. In fact, not only was UNC unable to do those things, but they were ultimately buried by UNLV doing it to them.
UNLV played harder and faster than North Carolina throughout the second half. The Rebels turned Tar Heel missed shots into lightning-quick bursts down to the other end, going all the way to the rim with the ball. From there, Oscar Bellfield would exploit the recovering defense by either finding someone under the basket or open beyond the arc.
UNLV hit 13 three-pointers in the game, including four each by Bellfield and Chase Stanback, who led the Rebels with 28 points. Even when those threes weren’t falling, UNLV was often pulling down the rebound and giving themselves a second opportunity. They had the same number of offensive boards (13) as threes made, and had four more than UNC, a team who normally dominates that statistic.
The ability of UNLV to minimize the impact of UNC’s big men—Tyler Zeller and John Henson—was a big factor in pulling out the win. The pace of the game certainly played a part in that, but the ability of the Rebels to keep them off the offensive glass was particularly impressive. Zeller and Henson combined for just two offensive rebounds in 56 minutes between them on the court.
No other team this season may duplicate that against the Tar Heels.
The play of Zeller and Henson in this game, along with most of the team, would have to be considered subpar, but that should be more to UNLV’s credit than UNC’s demise. The speed and athleticism of UNLV is right up there with anyone the Tar Heels will see in the ACC this season, or anyone they’ll see overall, outside of Kentucky.
Combine that with the execution ability of the Rebels’ veterans like Bellfield and Stanback to move the ball quickly and find the open man even quicker, and we could be looking at a team, now 7-0, who will be a fixture in the top 20 for much of this season.
With games coming up this week against No. 11 Wisconsin in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and a much-anticipated game at No. 2 Kentucky next weekend, it’s convenient to say this was just a “trap-game” loss for North Carolina.
However, the more accurate assessment of this loss would be the result of running into a legitimate top-20 team with a significant home-crowd advantage who playing in their backyard in Vegas.