When Deon Thompson made a mental error on the first play of the second half, the senior knew exactly where to go.
He ran straight up to UNC coach Roy Williams and pleaded, “Don’t kill me.”
Williams only said he’d think about it at the time, but after Thompson led UNC to an 80-72 win in the opening game of the NIT, he had nothing but compliments for his big man.
“Understand that I’ve been fairly tough on this youngster,” Williams said. “And he played his tail off tonight.”
Matching up against a particularly small team, North Carolina needed a big game from its bigs. And when the Tar Heels needed a bucket in their first round NIT game against William & Mary, more often than not they found it inside.
Thompson led UNC with 20 crucial points and eight rebounds, and John Henson added a near-double double with nine points and 10 boards.
But no play was bigger than seven-footer Tyler Zeller’s steal and slam to secure UNC’s narrow victory in the game’s final minute. Zeller finished with 13 points.
“We got some steals by our big guys,” Williams said. “I mean, how many times this year have you seen our big guys knock the ball away at the top of the key and go down the court and lay it up? The answer is zero, and tonight we got three like that.”
It could have been because Tuesday could have been his last game in a North Carolina uniform. Or maybe it was because Thompson, a student of the game and of UNC basketball, had the rare opportunity to play in Carmichael Arena.
But whatever the cause, Thompson seemed to have a spark the entire night.
Early in the game, he beckoned to the crowd and laughed with teammates. Later on, he was the first to the floor for loose balls. Thompson was playing hard and enjoying it.
“I’ve played in a lot of games wearing this North Carolina jersey,” Thompson said. “I’ve played in a couple Final Fours. But being out there on that floor tonight with those fans and all the history that’s happened in this auditorium is something I’ll always remember.”
UNC needed a lot of field goals to keep pace with the hot-shooting Tribe, which converted on 16 of its 43 shots from beyond the arc.
Since most of William & Mary’s field goals counted for three points and most of UNC’s were worth just two, the Tar Heels needed some high percentage shots.
And the closer you are to the basket, the easier the shot. Thompson finished the game 9-for-13 from the field, Zeller was 5-for-6 and Henson made half of his six shots.
The trio even scored 14 points in a row during a quick spurt that helped UNC build a 10-point halftime lead. Then after the break, they poured in seven more before a Larry Drew II 3-pointer got the guards back in the scoring column.
With that effort, the Tar Heels live to play another day in the postseason. And Thompson earned the right to at least one more game in that North Carolina jersey.
Contact the Sports Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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