UNC reaches NIT final with OT win
North Carolina wrapped up last season by cutting down the nets during a championship celebration, and the goal all along has been to do it again this year.
The Tar Heels will have their chance Thursday night, under much different circumstances.
Deon Thompson had 16 points and 13 rebounds, helping North Carolina survive a frantic final few seconds and defeat Rhode Island 68-67 in overtime Thursday night in the NIT semifinals.
Will Graves added 14 points and Tyler Zeller had 13 for the Tar Heels (20-16), who will try to make bittersweet history against Dayton by becoming the first school to follow a national title with an NIT championship at Madison Square Garden.
"We enjoyed playing the last Monday night last year, and you know, we play the last Thursday night this year," coach Roy Williams said. "Playing the last Monday night is better, there's no question about that. But I do believe that if you're playing -- if they keep playing until there's only one team standing -- it's very important to be that one team."
The Tar Heels have played with a sense of desperation during the NIT, almost as if they have a chip on their shoulder, and that was borne out when they scored the final five points of regulation to force overtime.
In the extra session, North Carolina had possession with about 5 seconds left and the shot clock about to expire when Larry Drew II forced up a shot. The rebound eventually wound up in the hands of Rhode Island's Lamonte Ulmer, who lost control of the ball as he rushed up court moments before the buzzer sounded, never coming close to getting off a shot.
Rhode Island coach Jim Baron thought he had been tripped and a foul should have been called, an opinion that North Carolina coach Roy Williams readily supported.
"We got the rebound and we were aiming to push it down the other end," Baron said. "I thought there was some contact and he tripped."
Ulmer finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds for Rhode Island (26-10), which was trying to reach the NIT championship game for the first time since the 1945-46 season. Keith Cothran scored 23 points and Delroy James finished with 13.
"Those guys played with a tremendous amount of heart," Baron said. "That's why I told them how proud I was, they put it all out there."
The final seconds of overtime mirrored a frenetic end to regulation.
The game was tied 59-all when James missed two free throws with 28.6 seconds left. North Carolina tracked down the rebound and, after a timeout, Drew allowed the shot clock to run down to 6 seconds before taking a closely guarded 3-pointer that never had a chance.
"One of the players said in the locker room, 'Sometimes it helps to win ugly," Williams said, "and we did win ugly today."
Defense played a big part in it.
The Tar Heels ended up with 27 offensive rebounds and 60 total, compared to 45 for the Rams. Rhode Island also turned the ball over 18 times, including that critical miscue with the seconds ticking down in overtime.
"We didn't execute very well and you hate to end the game like that in such an ugly way," Drew said, "but sometimes that's how it is in the game of basketball."
It sure was a strange sight to see North Carolina, the bluest of the bluebloods, playing on a Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden -- especially when the most important games are being played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Injuries and inexperienced combined to send the Tar Heels' season spiraling out of control, and they didn't recover until their chances of making the NCAA tournament -- and defending the title they earned by beating Michigan State last March -- had disappeared entirely.
Relegated to playing in a tournament for also-rans, the Tar Heels went on the road to defeat Mississippi State and Alabama-Birmingham before knocking off a Rhode Island team that had the best RPI of any program that failed to make the NCAA tournament.
The season still ended up being a success for Rhode Island, which could have matched the school record for wins in a season had it won the NIT championship.
The Rams' faithful certainly turned out in droves for the semifinals, easily outnumbering the Tar Heels fans clad in baby blue. They kept cheering until the final turnover in overtime, imploring a veteran team for one more night in the spotlight.
Instead, it will be North Carolina playing for yet another championship.
Even if it's not what anybody expected.
"You know, I have a great appreciation of this tournament, I have a great appreciation of the tradition, the history of the NIT," Williams said. "If you win this tournament, you have to feel good about it."