LAS VEGAS – They came from Idaho, South Dakota, New Mexico and across the deserts of Nevada, all decked out in Carolina blue hats, shirts and fine wear.
It’s a phenomenon with Tar Heel basketball, wherever the team plays and especially when it’s too far away for anyone to ever make it to Chapel Hill. The national following that Dean Smith built over 30 years shows up in all sizes, sexes, ages and accents.
“We used to drive if they played within 10 hours,” said the father of a family of four from Idaho, “but we flew this time.” Only because flights to Vegas are so cheap these days if you plan ahead.
And people do plan ahead once that schedule comes out. Vegas was an ideal road trip this season, even though the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational fell the day after Thanksgiving. Usually, Tar Heel Nation gets in planes, trains and automobiles to see their favorite TV show play one game somewhere. A few years ago at Arizona, hundreds of people drove from as far away as Northern California for a Saturday afternoon nationally televised game – without certainty of finding a ticket!
Plenty of fans came from North Carolina and the east coast, again thanks to cheap (and one non-stop a day) fares on Southwest from Raleigh. From near or far, they filled the mid-court sections behind and across from the benches at the Orleans Arena, originally built as a concert and entertainment venue but turned into an intimate basketball gym by some entrepreneurs (among them, former UNC player and assistant coach Eddie Fogler) who stage two holiday tournaments a year out here.
Their format is unique and guarantees good games during prime time. Eight teams are invited, four major college schools (this time UNC, South Carolina, UNLV and Southern Cal) and four “smalls” like the Mississippi Valley State and Tennessee State victims Carolina whipped in Chapel Hill in the preliminary games last week.
Then when they all arrive in Vegas, the “smalls” have a four team tournament on Friday and Saturday afternoons while the big boys play their tourney at night. Even if a small upsets a big in a preliminary game, the pairings remain the same when they get here. That eliminates possible heartburn for the TV networks over having to carry a mismatch, while it gives the four small schools a chance to play in places like Chapel Hill and Los Angeles and then spend a holiday in somewhere like Sin City.
Roy Williams likes to play in one of these every year, now that the NCAA has softened its regulations to say a team can only go to the same tournament once every four years. So Williams always takes his Tar Heels to the Maui Classic and the preseason NIT, and he seems to like Vegas as the third tournament (perhaps because he also likes an hour or so shooting craps after everyone else goes to bed). He generally leaves the fourth year open to see what comes up, like Puerto Rico last year.
But Vegas is great for everyone playing, coaching and watching. Whether you’re doubling down at the black jack table or just wandering through the casinos in a daze, there is no place in America quite like it. Every casino has a legal sports book, where you can actually bet on a game and then go see it in person or watch one of the dozens of TVs showing everything from horse racing to jai alai. By the way, UNC was a 19-point favorite over South Carolina at tip-off and those who took Carolina to cover had some anxious moments until the Heels finished with a 10-2 run in the 87-62 win for their fifth straight going into tonight’s tougher match against hometown UNLV.
If the game isn’t great, the atmosphere should be better than around a high-stakes Texas hold ’em table. Also unbeaten Vegas (6-0) took care of Southern Cal in the first game, sending the large red-clad Rebels crowd swiftly into the nightlife, telling UNC fans they passed on the way out, “See you tomorrow.” The 7,000-seat arena should be so packed that they may even open up sections that at a concert would be stage-side but are beyond the baseline bleachers for basketball.
Who knows what celebs will show up for this one. Jerry Tarkanian, infamous as “Tark the Shark” when his UNLV team lost a Final Four classic to Carolina at Atlanta’s old Omni in 1977, might even make an appearance. So might one of his players from that team, Reggie Theus, since the NBA is in lockout and Theus, a Minnesota Timberwolves assistant coach, is spending his time scouting college basketball games these days. This one would be agood choice, with all those Tar Heel lottery picks.
The UNC-Vegas game was everything expected, except the outcome. The arena was sold out and resembled a State-Carolina brawl with all the Blue and Red in the house. Cheers of “Tar” and “Heels” were drowned out by “RE-BELS” and the atmosphere juiced the “home” team, which hung in there the first half and then began the second with a 14-0 run that left Carolina with few cards to play for the rest of the night. The Tar Heels were exposed by UNLV’s spread attack that forced their big men to come out and cover high ball screens, enabling the Rebel guards to get into the lane and either finish at the basket or pitch to a wide-open shooter on the wings, presenting a blue print that Roy Williams will have to deal with for the rest of the season.
The collapse was not a good sign for UNC’s inside game, which was manhandled by the Vegas front line, outrebounded badly on both ends. Final stats showed thirteen “3s” for UNLV compared to four for Carolina — a 27-point differential that will beat you every time especially when you shoot only 42 percent from the field. The Heels have yet to become a good three-ball team and cannot give up that many and expect to beat talented opposition, which UNLV certainly is. With Tarkanian in the house, the Rebels fans stormed the court at the end, knocking down one of UNC’s female managers and forcing cancellation of the trophy presentation to the home team. UNC will get a chance to avenge the loss next season when UNLV visits Chapel Hill.
Carolina now faces two teams even better than Vegas — Wisconsin Wednesday night in the Smith Center and at new No. 1 Kentucky Saturday in Lexington. Some hard practices and soul-searching for more intense performances will be on the menu this week for Williams.
No question, Williams was still the biggest celebrity of the weekend. He entered the court each night through a fan-lined gauntlet in the hallway outside the locker room and had to fight his way through a bigger crowd after the game. Ol’ Roy was gracious but not exactly gregarious Friday night .
He didn’t like the way his team played the first 30 minutes or so and correctly predicted it would lose to Vegas without marked improvement. And he was really toasted when South Carolina’s Malik Cooke threw freshman P.J Hairston into the basket support with an intentional foul and his team down by 23 in the last minute. The ball bounded Williams’ way and he held it, like he wanted to take it and go home.
South Carolina coach Darrin Horn walked toward the scorer’s table after the technical foul was assessed and yelled, “What did he (Cooke) do?”
Williams yelled back, “He almost killed him!” Hairston had already scored 18 points with another spot-on night from behind the arc.
A minute later came a very rare blow-by handshake as Williams hustled his team through the line and off the court. The large, loving throng seemed to calm him down some as he entered his press conference, but they were still there when he came out. Roy waved and walked out to the team bus and into the Vegas night.
For residents, and the hundreds who got on the road to see their heroes away from home, that night was just beginning in the city that never sleeps.