CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Roy Williams was a content man Saturday evening, and he doesn’t satisfy easily.
His North Carolina basketball team had just knocked off No. 17 UNLV, 79-73, at the Dean Smith Center, giving the Tar Heels a much-needed win over a high-profile opponent. But it wasn’t just the victory that had the Hall of Fame coach praising his young club, it was how they went about beating the Runnin’ Rebels.
North Carolina sank more than half of its field goal attempts and had some breathtaking moments, but this game had very little to do with that. It had everything to do with attitude, grit, fight and pride. These Tar Heels finally felt like Tar Heels.
“I’d like to think they grew up 100 times, but who knows,” Williams said. “We’ve been practicing 47 practices and played 13 games and that’s the first time that we’ve really been able to feel really good about what we did.”
For starters, the Tar Heels (10-3) defended. UNLV converted 45.8 percent of its shots on the afternoon, but it had to work awfully hard to get many of its looks, especially in the first half, when UNC established a tone it needed to draw from after halftime.
Carolina forced 17 turnovers — 12 were steals — and 6-foot-9 sophomore big man Desmond Hubert may have set the stage for the gritty win with by far the best sequence of his career in the game’s early minutes.
Hubert has been a liability, but with major issues in the paint that have saddled the Heels in their three ugly losses, his 20 minutes Saturday were enormous. Hubert blocked three shots, altered a few others, kept several balls alive around the rim so teammates could snag them, and didn’t make any foolish mistakes.
“He’s a great player on defense, and that’s the kind of effort we need,” senior guard Dexter Strickland said. “If he brings that every game I think we can be successful.”
Williams was complimentary of Hubert, but also noted that the Cream Ridge, N.J., native played at 100 miles per hour instead of 50, which is where he usually operates. A key, Williams said, is for Hubert’s motor to run at 100 on a consistent basis.
And then there was sophomore wing P.J. Hairston, who got his first UNC start with the team’s best all-around player, Reggie Bullock, out with a mild concussion.
All Hairston did was score 15 points, grab four rebounds, register four steals and infuse the Heels with a lunch-pail mentality that was clearly infectious.
“I just try to play hard and do what I can to help the team,” Hairston said, shying away from self-praise. “I like to play hard, I like to give us something.”
Freshman Brice Johnson (12 points, four rebounds) was again productive off the bench, Strickland (16 points) did some nice things, freshman point Marcus Paige (12 points, four assists) had his moments, and James Michael McAdoo (13 points, nine rebounds) played with much better recognition after halftime, a reason he finished with a surprising three assists.
But the common denominator in UNC’s crucial victory was the fight and passion the Tar Heels displayed. Williams gave his best effort, constantly barking at the officials and his team. He had another one of those head-spinning lapses where he lost his equilibrium, but if you know the old coach you’d understand that’s his way of essentially being its sixth man.
Still ill from a virus that has affected him for more than a week, Williams also finally felt like a Tar Heel.
“We were really good defensively in the first half,” Williams said, “and in the second half I was really proud of our toughness, and you haven’t heard me say that this year.”
He’d like to say it much more often moving forward. But it will only happen if the hard-hat Tar Heels show up. They aren’t balanced enough to skate by at times like last year’s club, and maybe on Saturday that finally hit home.