By Matt Norlander
With his former coach, Jerry Tarkanian, and the kid he wants to coach, undecided No. 1 2012 prospect Shabazz Muhammad, sitting courtside, first-year UNLV coach Dave Rice led his team to one of the biggest upsets he’ll ever have in his coaching career.
Even if it’s only November, any time you knock off North Carolina and they’ve got a 1 next to their name, it’s a big deal. You know what, the latter need not apply. And Rice may never nip a top-seeded team off again — or he could wind up collecting another half-dozen by the time he retires, decades down the road. The point is, it’s the best possible start to his time in Vegas he could’ve asked for.
And it’s quite a storyline for us, the college basketball-fanatic public, to take in. The Runnin’ Rebels gave the sport its biggest upset of the season so far, decisively taking out the Tar Heels 90-80 Saturday night at the Orleans Arena in the finals of the Las Vegas Invitational. This wasn’t a skin-of-the-teeth W. This was a bombs-away affair that Vegas had in the bag with five minutes to go.
(So much for this prediction, huh?)
“We were definitely confident that we could win the game,” UNLV sophomore forward Mike Moser said by phone late Saturday night as he boarded the team bus on the way back to campus. “We were surprised we controlled the game like we did. Other than that, our mentality is to attack, attack — on defense and offense.”
It’s not like North Carolina to play the way it did Saturday night, with a lack of attack. Was it what UNLV did, or what did UNC not do that surprised him most?
“Nothing, really,” Rice said by phone after the game. “I was just proud of the resolve our players showed. We have become a very good second-half team. One of the strength of our team is our depth. We have unbelievable confidence with the five guys who start and four guys who come off our bench.”
UNC’s probably just as good as we expect them to be. This was a bad night for them. But UNLV? Could be a lot better than we expected — and plenty expected this team to be NCAA tournament-worthy. The victory Chace Stanback, Moser, Oscar Bellfield and others got for their team, their program, their city tonight — it’s season-making. It doesn’t get much more motivating or valuable than to beat the top-ranked team in the country on your soil. (It wasn’t a true home game, but it might as well have been.)
Stanback led the team with 28 points, Moser hit some huge 3s throughout the game, but Rice said Bellfield was the guy in those critical spots who came up large tonight. And his confidence and presence in the timeout huddles was the continual shot of adrenaline that kept the team on a whir.
“Oscar Bellfield is a tremendous leader,” Rice said. “He’s the guy, along with Anthony Marshall that makes us go. To start the game, the 3-point shots Oscar hit made us a confident team.”
Vegas shot 13-of-32 from 3 and 15-of-18 from the foul line to help keep distance from Roy Williams’ team in the second half. Thirteen offensive boards and 22 assists also helped; amazingly, UNC only committed nine turnovers, yet wasn’t even sniffing a comeback in the second half. The 14-0 run that UNLV started the second half with was clearly the key — UNC couldn’t return the shots, both metaphorically and realistically.
“We try to coach, try to play based on what the defense gives us,” Rice said. “North Carolina is such a good defensive team, they really took away our inside game.”
UNC became the second elite team to lose to an unranked opponent in the past 30 hours. UConn fell to Central Florida Saturday.
Moser said he was 100 percent confident his team was winning with a minute to go, when Chace Stanback was on the line. Not a second before that, though.
“The ultimate confidence in that guy at the end of the game,” Moser said of his teammate.
As for those 3 balls that kept getting tossed into the Vegas air, Moser said that wasn’t in the team’s game plan to start.
“Honestly, the 3s really just came naturally,” he said. “They (UNC) were in the paint so much.”
Ben Howland’s month just got worse, too. The UCLA coach, who doesn’t have a win over a D-I team yet, watched as Moser and Stanback, two guys deemed not good enough for the Bruins, just plotted their team to the front page of every major sports website tonight and into Sunday morning.
“I am really, really happy for our staff,” Rice said. “We’ve got really good assistant who left other opportunities to come to this program. We had 11 scholarship players returning, and they all stayed. When so many guys transfer, I’m so happy for them to get this kind of win after committing themselves to this staff and our program.”Carolina will get its chances (starting Wednesday against an incredibly tough Wisconsin team, then at Kentucky Saturday) to prove itself over and over. UNLV doesn't have to. It has to keep winning, but it doesn't have to do better than it did tonight. Its season was made thanks to an aggressive game plan and a fearless group that took advantage of a top-ranked team that looked uninspired and irresolute throughout the second half.