By Aaron Beard/The Associated Press
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — So much for the idea that North Carolina’s players wouldn’t be interested in playing in the NIT, even in a miserable season following a national championship run.
Instead, the Tar Heels really did look grateful to play again just as they said they were.
Dexter Strickland hit the go-ahead free throws with 2:34 left and North Carolina held William & Mary scoreless for the final 5 minutes in the Tar Heels’ 80-72 win in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night.
Deon Thompson scored 20 points to lead the Tar Heels (17-16), who had slid from hoisting the NCAA championship trophy nearly a year ago in Detroit to playing in the NIT for the first time in seven years. And after weathering a flurry of 3-pointers from the Tribe (22-11), they ensured that they would avoid suffering only their second losing season in nearly half a century.
“We came into this game looking at it as another fresh start for us,” said fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard, who had 12 points. “We did a great job of getting after it, getting all the loose balls and playing together as a team — and those are things we’ve got to continue to build on.”
Tyler Zeller added 13 points for the fourth-seeded Tar Heels, who advanced to the second round to face Mississippi State. North Carolina had gone 39 years without a losing seasons before its 8-20 debacle of 2001-02, and this win ensured that would be the only such blip on the program’s recent history.
As if the sight of basketball royalty playing in the NIT wasn’t unusual enough, the game also was the first time in 24 years that the men’s program played a regular-season or postseason game at Carmichael Arena. Carmichael was the program’s campus home before moving into the Smith Center — which is currently undergoing some renovation — in 1986.
Recent renovations at Carmichael had cut its capacity from around 10,000 to about 6,800 for this game, yet it was a sellout and offered a surprisingly charged atmosphere in the building where program legends like Phil Ford, Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins once played under Hall of Famer Dean Smith.
“It wasn’t as loud as it was in the old days because there were 3,000 more people in there, but it was a fun atmosphere for me to coach in,” said coach Roy Williams, an assistant to Smith for 10 years. “We’ve had some great games in the Smith Center, but this one was special and hopefully we can get this kind of atmosphere in the Smith Center all the time.”
David Schneider scored 21 points on seven 3-pointers for the fifth-seeded Tribe, who shot 16 for 43 from behind the arc and rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit.
“We feel like we could’ve won, we really do,” said William & Mary coach Tony Shaver, who played at North Carolina in the 1970s. “Carolina’s pressure was tough. As an old Carolina guy, I was really happy to see them play with the intensity they did today. I just wish they had a few less points.”
William & Mary led 72-69 on Schneider’s 3 with 5:07 left, but the Tribe missed its last six 3-point attempts. Strickland hit four straight free throws that put North Carolina ahead 73-72, then Larry Drew II added two more. Two possessions later, Zeller stole a pass and raced downcourt for a dunk that gave the Tar Heels a 77-72 lead with 48.9 seconds left to effectively seal it.
The Tribe played without Quinn McDowell, its top 3-point shooter who sprained his right ankle during the Colonial Athletic Association tournament semifinals.