During the most critical stretch of UNC’s alphabet soup win over UNLV Saturday, the Tar Heels denied the Running Rebels three chances to take back the lead they had held only once briefly earlier in the second half.

Thrice the Rebs had the ball down one point and, thrice, the Heels denied them the go-ahead basket before Marcus Paige widened the margin with a pair of free throws.

At the time, Carolina was giving up about 25 pounds per man to the beefy ballers from Sin City. The “skinny boys” held forth until their star James Michael McAdoo recovered from a leg cramp that had the UNC medical staff pulling and stretching and kneading his right leg at the end of the bench.

McAdoo’s return gave the good guys a little more girth but, in general, it was the heavies from Vegas versus the middleweights from Tobacco Road in pretty much a must-win situation for a team playing without its best player (according to Coach Roy Williams after the game).

“People close to our program know that Reggie (Bullock) has been playing better than anyone on the team,” Williams said, coughing through a press conference during which ol’ Roy insisted he felt better than he sounded.

Bullock sat out the game in a dark suit that looked funereal, considering the 20th-ranked Rebels came to town with a better team than the one that shocked the unbeaten and top-ranked Tar Heels 13 months ago just off the strip.

Without the 6-7 Bullock, their best outside scorer and perimeter defender, what chances did they have of avoiding a 9-4 record that would have included disheartening defeats to all the decent teams they played?

But, as The Legend used to say, Dean Smith liked his chances for the first game after a key player went out because the team would band together to make up for his loss. No more than one game, mind you, and thankfully Bullock’s mild concussion will be healed by the time Carolina goes to Virginia next Sunday for the ACC opener.

In Bullock’s absence, and with 270-pound Joel James essentially sitting after his two foul-two-turnover-two-minute stretch in the first half, the skinny boys had to find a way. And they did, hoping the 79-73 victory in a jammed-packed Smith Center will give them the confidence to defend their legacy when league play commences for 18 straight ACC games.
Williams acknowledged what everyone watching had to notice, the most active, aggressive, arm-waving defense of the season in the first half and a similarly special brand of toughness in the second half to stave off the Rebels’ run from a 15-point deficit late in the first period.

P.J. Hairston, who at a rock-solid 220 is anything but skinny, was the key cog in this exciting victory, UNC’s first over a ranked opponent this season. Hairston started his first college game, played the most minutes (32) ever in Carolina blue and made big shot after big put-back after big steal to demonstrate this sophomore swing man is ready to shine.

As Smith once reasoned, the pick-me-up player will gain and retain confidence when the absent player returns in what he termed a “good injury”. Short but sweet for the guys who stepped up. And a happy Hairston wasn’t the only one.

Let me count the pounds.

Desmond Hubert, who is listed at 220 which must be soaking wet with ankle weights, had his best college game – relatively speaking. Hubert may begin but he never finishes if the team has to protect a lead because he makes about one free throw every full moon. During his 20 minutes, the player who starts because (according to Williams) no one has taken the five spot away from him, actually made one rim-rattling free throw and an actual back-to-the-basket semi-power move from the low post, plus he recorded a college high of three blocks (two on UNLV’s first possession).

The skinniest boy for his 6-9 size, freshman Brice Johnson, again made the most of his 15 minutes of fame. The wispy 187-pounder shot 6-for-8, grabbed four rebounds (three on the offensive end) and added three steals by sticking out a chicken wing at the right time. He is already more polished on the offensive end than, say, John Henson was as a freshman, and he looks less lost on defense with every game.

Fellow freshman J.P. Tokoto, who is 6-5 and tips the scale at 185, had a memorable 11 minutes, hitting his only shot on his one offensive rebound and also fed Johnson for one of his hoops. Tokoto will be a player someday if he splits his time between practice, the weight room and training table. Plus, late night pizza wouldn’t hurt.

The skinniest minny is southpaw Paige, who is listed at a generous 157 pounds. But he’s getting better by the ounce and had a helluva game with a couple of sweet tear drops, six free throws, four assists and a dogged defensive effort on UNLV senior point guard Anthony Marshall, who had 15 points and eight assists but did not dominate like last year. And every little bit helped.

Underrated Dexter Strickland, who weighs 185 which is okay because he’s only 6-3, continues to advance as a senior leader, scoring (game high 16 points) and sharing the point guard duties as an improving ball handler who gets to the free throw line (6-8).  Strickland had five field goals, including perhaps the most critical hoop of the game when he recovered the ball after a steal attempt and hit a 12-footer in the lane that pretty much sealed UNLV’s second loss of the season.

No, no, I haven’t forgotten props for McAdoo, who scored six straight points after Vegas had taken its ONE lead of the game. JMM, who needs more muscle to be a truly effective power forward, missed 7 of his 8 shots in the first half while trying to contain UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, who is 240 pounds and looks like a 40-year-old freshman already being compared by Rebel fans to Larry “Grand MaMa” Johnson from the Tark the Shark era.

McAdoo came back to make 4 of 5 in the second half, all of them needed because Vegas was getting hot at the craps table, tossing in 5 of 7 three-pointers while trying to double down with a win the Rebels fully expected to get when they arrived.

Obviously, they did not count on the skinny boys carrying their weight.