CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- P.J. Hairston took advantage of the opportunity for his first career start. It's a key reason why North Carolina finally turned in the kind of tough-minded performance its Hall of Fame coach has been waiting to see.
Hairston scored 15 points to help the Tar Heels beat No. 20 UNLV 79-73 on Saturday, earning a marquee victory after falling short in their three biggest games this year.
Dexter Strickland added a season-high 16 points for the Tar Heels (10-3), who led by 15 points in the first half and by nine at the break. But UNC had to turn away a second-half surge by the Runnin' Rebels (11-2) to earn the program's 63rd straight home win against nonconference opponents.
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"I'd like to think they grew up 100 times, but who knows?" Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. "They're 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kids. Who knows what they're going to do tomorrow? We've been practicing 47 practices and played 13 games and that's the first time we've really been able to feel good about what we did."
Hairston certainly helped in place of second-leading scorer Reggie Bullock, who sat out with a mild concussion suffered in Thursday's practice.
Hairston finished 5 for 10 from the field and hit two 3-pointers, but the 6-foot-5 sophomore had a strong overall performance that included four rebounds, four steals and two charges taken. He knocked down two free throws with 28.5 seconds left that made it a two-possession game after the Runnin' Rebels had closed within 76-73.
He played a career-high 32 minutes, nine more than his previous high.
"When I found out Reggie wasn't playing because of the concussion, it clicked to me that I have to step up," Hairston said. "Being that Reggie is one of the best defenders on the team, I knew I had to step up defensively and basically make up for Reggie being out."
The Tar Heels had lost to Butler in the Maui Invitational, then suffered blowout losses at Indiana and Texas. The last one knocked the Tar Heels out of the Top 25 and they hadn't played since a 34-point home win over McNeese State three days before Christmas.
But they looked sharp and active early in this one, frequently getting hands in passing lanes or stripping the ball to build the first-half lead. Williams said they played their best defense of the season before the break, then showed toughness after halftime once UNLV closed the deficit.
"I just think everybody came out with energy and ready to play," Strickland said. "We did what coach wanted, coach was hyped up about the game and so were we. I think it turned out great."
North Carolina shot 51 percent and scored 18 points off 17 turnovers by UNLV.
Freshman Anthony Bennett had 15 points and 13 rebounds for UNLV, who spent most of the game in catch-up mode. Katin Reinhardt and Anthony Marshall each added 15 points for the Runnin' Rebels, who got Mike Moser back from an elbow injury after a four-game absence.
UNLV upset the then-No. 1 Tar Heels in last year's meeting in the Las Vegas Invitational. This time, the Runnin' Rebels led just once, at 49-48 on a 3 from Reinhardt with 14:02 left.
"We put ourselves in a position in the second half, took a lead, but we just couldn't sustain our stops down the stretch," UNLV coach Dave Rice said. "It's very difficult to go on the road and allow a team to shoot more than 50 percent and think we're going to have a chance to win."
Leading by a point, the Tar Heels put together a 7-1 spurt to re-build some of its lost early cushion. James Michael McAdoo scored a tough basket over Bennett inside, then freshman Marcus Paige followed with a jumper over Khem Birch.
Two minutes later, freshman Brice Johnson went up in traffic to rebound a missed shot from Strickland and score on a putback that made it 71-64 with 4:40 left.
Strickland hit a jumper near the foul line that barely beat the shot clock for a 74-68 lead at the 1:33 mark, then added two free throws with 4.7 seconds left to seal it.
Moser's return was welcome news for UNLV. The 6-8 junior, averaging about 11 points and eight rebounds, hadn't played since dislocating his right elbow at California on Dec. 9. He entered this game at the 13:28 mark of the first half and knocked down a 3-pointer over J.P. Tokoto just before halftime to bring the Runnin' Rebels within 39-30 for his only basket in 12 minutes.