UNLV’s basketball team came went to Asheville, North Carolina, once a primitive outpost which Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett ventured through, home of the most fantastic waterfalls throughout the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains — to find itself early in a season.
The Rebels are still looking.
North Carolina is much better, and yet it took a bit for talent levels to assume their proper places. The No. 14 Tar Heels shrugged off a slow start Monday night and rolled to a 78-51 win in a Maui Invitational quarterfinal.
The Rebels were going to be better than the last time we saw them, a 91-78 season-opening loss to Montana State in which the best thing about UNLV was that pregame fireworks came off without a hitch.
That the Rebels opened a 13-0 lead and didn’t allow North Carolina a point until 11:39 remained in the first half said something for the preparation since that stinker against the Bobcats. The Rebels were far more engaged. That was expected against such an opponent on national television.
“You can’t spot most people 13 points and expect to come back and win,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose team saw 13 players grab at least one rebound. “I wasn’t worried about the score. I was worried about how we were playing.”
If early scores are an indication of what is to come, the Mountain West might struggle to place multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament. Assuming there is one. Sports are day-to-day now. What isn’t?
So games like these, moved from Maui because of the pandemic, can only help UNLV when it comes to fighting for a conference title. There isn’t a league team with near the size of North Carolina. UNLV won’t see this sort of length again.
It wasn’t going to go well Monday, not against the best frontcourt in college basketball, not once the Tar Heels wore down that double-team of UNLV.
The Tar Heels ended the first half on a 15-3 run. They began the second with an 11-1 run. That was that.
When you know where things are headed: At one point, Rebels guard Marvin Coleman (6-foot-3) was fronting North Carolina forward Armando Bacot (6-10). Small will lose that battle every time.
“They’re not the biggest team in the world,” North Carolina guard Andrew Platek said. “We were worried for a second when it (was 13-0), but we knew that if we just played our game and our principles and game plan, we were going to be fine.”
Think about it: UNLV shot 5 of 6 to open that 13-point lead. It then made 10 of its next 46 shots while scoring 26 points during that span.
Length bothers people. The Rebels shot 29% for the game. North Carolina also owned a 54-35 margin on the boards, and only junior Bryce Hamilton (15 points on 7-of-19 shooting) scored in double figures for UNLV.
Those are the numbers of a mismatch.
Doubling the post was UNLV’s only chance — hoping the Tar Heels would miss enough jumpers off of kick-outs and the Rebels would be good enough offensively to make it a game. Yeah. Didn’t happen.
I don’t think for a second North Carolina is nearly 30 points better, but UNLV did itself no favors when trying to stay close. It didn’t handle extended ball pressure and a variety of traps well at all when chasing the score to begin the second half, unable to hit water from a boat out on nearby Spivey Lake.
“We didn’t do the job we needed to do to be stubborn and get open,” Rebels coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We didn’t cut well enough to put ourselves in a great position. Eventually, what it did was push us out on the floor, and we were running offense from 35-40 feet, which is a challenge.
“We have to do a better job using our competitive spirit with every cut, every catch, every pass, especially against a team with the size and length of North Carolina.”
They are here to find themselves.
Two games remain to aid in that quest.
Neither is against the Tar Heels.
Silver lining, y’all.