Marcus Johnson scored 20 points and
the Flyers handed North Carolina one more disheartening loss at the end
of a lousy season, beating the Tar Heels 79-68 Thursday night to win the
NIT at Madison Square Garden.
Reserve guard Paul Williams added 16
points for No. 3 seed Dayton (25-12), which bounced back from a
disappointing year to capture its third NIT title and first since 1968.
Picked to win the Atlantic 10
Conference, the deep and athletic Flyers faded late and missed the NCAA
tournament before turning things around and ending on a high note.
"Our guys played with great toughness
and desire," Dayton coach Brian Gregory said. "We answered everything
they threw at us."
Will Graves shot North Carolina back
into the game in the second half, finishing with 25 points for the
fourth-seeded Tar Heels (20-17), who started the season hoping for
back-to-back NCAA championships.
Chris Wright had 14 points for the
Flyers, as did tournament MVP Chris Johnson — who scored 22 in a
semifinal victory over Mississippi.
Including the Rebels and Tar Heels,
Dayton beat four teams from BCS conferences en route to the
championship. Cincinnati and Illinois were the others.
Coach Roy Williams and the Tar Heels
fell short in their attempt to grab a somewhat dubious piece of college
basketball history. A victory Thursday night would have made them the
first team to follow up an NCAA national championship with an NIT crown
the next year.
With officials discussing expanding
the NCAA tournament to 96 teams as soon as next year, this could be the
last NIT, an event with a rich history that dates to 1938.
NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen said
Thursday no decision has been made about the future of the postseason
NIT, which is operated independently by the NCAA.
How down-and-out were these Tar Heels
heading into the postseason? When the 32-team NIT draw was announced,
they opened at 35-1 odds to win the title.
And while Dayton has been a regular
in this event, it was strange to see North Carolina on the college
basketball undercard this time of year. One of the sport's true
heavyweights, the Tar Heels own five NCAA national championships,
including an 89-72 victory over Michigan State in last year's title
Tom Izzo and the Spartans are back in
the Final Four, set to play Butler in Indianapolis on Saturday. North
Carolina was left to chase a consolation prize following a 16-16 regular
season wrecked by injuries, leaky defense and a string of embarrassing
The blue bloods from Tobacco Road won
their only NIT title in 1971, when current Denver Nuggets coach George
Karl was on the team.
There was a bright spot for North
Carolina in this one, though. Deon Thompson, nursing an aching back, set
an NCAA record for career games played with 152, breaking a mark held
by Kentucky's Wayne Turner (1996-99) and Florida's Walter Hodge
Thompson had 16 points and 13
rebounds in the semifinals Tuesday night, when the Tar Heels scored the
final five points in regulation to force overtime and then beat Rhode
Island 68-67. The senior forward finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds
in this one.
Dayton has some successful history of
its own. The Flyers beat North Carolina in the 1967 NCAA Final Four,
Dean Smith's first trip to the national semifinals as UNC head coach,
before losing to John Wooden and UCLA in the championship game.
The Tar Heels topped the Flyers 81-51
in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Dec. 31, 2006.
Dayton was playing in its 22nd NIT,
second only to St. John's (27). The Flyers also won it in 1962.
Senior point guard London Warren was
held out of the starting lineup by Gregory for violating team rules. Rob
Lowery started in place of Warren, who entered less than four minutes in
and played 24 minutes. He had a team-high seven assists.
Dayton turned up its defense and held
the cold-shooting Tar Heels to a pair of field goals over the final
8:09 in the first half, closing with a 17-4 run that gave the Flyers
their largest lead, 45-32, going into the break.
Paul Williams hit a trio of
3-pointers during the run, and Dayton got thunderous dunks from Devin
Searcy, Wright and Marcus Johnson.
Dayton shot 58.1 percent in the first
half, but it was the Tar Heels who came out strong after halftime.
Graves hit a pair of 3s in a 12-1 run and waved his arms to get North
Carolina fans going as they chanted "UNC! UNC!"
But the Flyers had a response every
time North Carolina got close.
Tar Heels guard Marcus Ginyard missed
a contested layup that could have tied it at 59, and Paul Williams hit
one of his four 3s on the other end with 7:46 left.
A 3-pointer by Graves cut UNC's
deficit to 67-63 with 3:37 remaining, but Chris Johnson countered with a
3 of his own and a follow-up dunk to put Dayton up by nine with 2:50 to
North Carolina, which committed 15
turnovers, never got closer than five the rest of the way.