To hang with the No. 1 team in the land on Saturday night at the Orleans Arena, UNLV will have to play far better than it did on Friday against USC.
But a gritty second half effort at the Orleans was enough to get the Rebels (6-0) onto the stage they desired heading into the Las Vegas Invitational. UNLV outlasted Southern Cal, 66-55, and set up a meeting with the Tar Heels (5-0), who throttled South Carolina in Friday's nightcap, 87-62.
The two will meet at 7:30 p.m., with the game being broadcasted on ESPN2. It will be UNLV's first chance to make a major national statement under first-year coach Dave Rice.
With the stage set for the finale to the tournament that everyone wanted to see, here are Seven Takeaways from Friday's action.
1) Hawkins to the rescue … again
Rice admitted after the game that in a battle of tempos, USC held an upper hand for much of the night.
After having that edge for the majority of the first half, junior guard Justin Hawkins helped set a tone for UNLV on both ends of the floor during a key second half surge.
On the defensive end, he helped lock up Trojans point guard Maurice Jones, who finished the night with just one assist and four turnovers in 40 minutes.
On offense, he hit two huge momentum-swinging 3-pointers for the Rebels, who again didn't shoot particularly well in the Orleans Arena, but did enough to avoid a second disappointing loss to USC in three years.
2) The turning point
Officiating can be nit-picked in any basketball game, and in this one, it can be argued that 7-foot forward Dewayne Dedmon — arguably USC's best player — caught a raw deal on Friday.
He picked up two fouls in the game's first two minutes, then spent the rest of the first half on the bench. After a hot start to the second half, Dedmon was called for a third after getting tangled up with Brice Massamba while fighting for position. His fourth, which came after another stint on the bench, came after a similar situation with Carlos Lopez. This time, he lost it emotionally and was done for the night after a technical foul was called.
In the end, he played five minutes, scored four points and grabbed three rebounds.
Dedmon's technical foul came with USC up 46-44 and 9:38 left in the game. The Rebels then ripped off an 8-0 run, and had control of the contest from there on out.
3) Stanback needs to bounce back
It was a rough night for Chace Stanback, who in 17 minutes had four points off of 2-of-7 shooting and only two rebounds. In a game similar to UNLV's two grinders during the regular season last year against San Diego State, he had a tough time standing out.
Saturday's game against North Carolina will feature a style of play that better fits his strengths, and UNLV will need the productive, dangerous Stanback to be on the floor.
Stanback shouldn't have any trouble firing himself up for the game, as facing North Carolina carries a special meaning for him.
Stanback's father, Harry, played football at North Carolina on the same defensive unit as NFL legend Lawrence Taylor, and Chace was raised as a UNC fan. He said afterwards that he was one until heading off to college, and he has a few family members from back in North Carolina in town for the holiday weekend.
His contributions will be needed on both ends, as UNC's wealth of deadly big men will present UNLV's front line with quite a challenge.
4) Continuing to hit the free throws
One area where UNLV was able to capitalize on its momentum from the Cal Poly game was at the free throw line, where the Rebels were 17-of-20 against USC.
That was key in a game that, going in, UNLV knew was going to be a physical battle. The Rebels are now 42-of-51 (82.4 percent) from the line in their last two games after going 55-of-93 (59.1) in their first four.
5) Following the matinee
After UNLV survived a grinder against USC, North Carolina had a much easier time advancing to Saturday's tournament title game.
The Tar Heels, from the opening tip, physically dominated an overwhelmed opponent and never let up. They were 31-of-67 from the floor, looked dominant on both ends of the floor and several players on their roster gave of the look of future NBA regulars.
They both looked and acted like the No. 1 team in the land, which was quite impressive.
Almost equally noteworthy was the program's presence in the stands, and on Saturday night, expect almost a dead-even 50-50 split in the Orleans Arena between UNLV and UNC fans.
6) UNC's central nervous system
It's sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall, who had 14 assists against the Gamecocks, marking the third time in five games that he's posted that many this season.
Marshall doesn't have to do much else offensively, which allows the pieces around him to all do what they do best — score. Marshall only attempted three field goals in 32 minutes on the floor, which shows outstanding discipline.
Between Anthony Marshall and Oscar Bellfield, UNLV has two guys in its starting lineup who could effectively defend Marshall on Saturday. The wild card might be Hawkins off of the bench, though. He's proven this season that he can do more than just defend, which is earning him more minutes regularly. He could potentially frustrate Marshall in ways that no one he's faced so far this season has.
7) And what about Barnes?
One could go on and on at looking across UNC's lineup and determining how UNLV will match-up defensively against each piece. None may be more intriguing than sophomore forward Harrison Barnes.
After his college career started with a bit of a thud last year, the former McDonald's All-American swingman has developed into arguably the best wing in college basketball.
At 6-foot-8 with a hulking frame, Barnes can score from anywhere on the floor. He showed that with ease against South Carolina, scoring 21 points in 24 minutes.
Based on physical abilities alone, UNLV's best bet against him defensively might be power forward Mike Moser. But that would then pull the Rebels' best defensive rebounder away from the paint. Can Stanback, who switched back to small forward this season, realistically stick to Barnes and neutralize him?
Another one of several questions that UNLV will try to answer on Saturday night.