NEW YORK — In the NIT finals, North Carolina came crashing back to earth.
For almost three weeks, the Tar Heels were able to forget about their disappointing season. The tenth-place finish in the ACC, the 32-point loss to Duke in the season finale, and the first-round exit from the ACC tournament all faded because the Tar Heels started winning.
In Starkville, Miss., Birmingham, Ala., and New York, Larry Drew II was the clutch late-game point guard. Marcus Ginyard was a lockdown defender. John Henson showed why he was a prized recruit out of high school, and Deon Thompson bullied through opponents for rebounds and points.
But against Dayton in the NIT championship game, North Carolina’s old habits came back to bite them.
UNC fell behind by 13 in the first half, and North Carolina’s last play of the 2010 season was a turnover, 700 miles from Indianapolis and the Final Four.
Instead of celebrating in confetti and streamers like in 2008-09, UNC had to stay on the floor after the buzzer sounded on Dayton’s 79-68 win to watch Dayton accept the NIT trophy.
“It’s the worst feeling you can have as a coach,” Roy Williams said. “Because you’re so inadequate to what you can say to take away the pain and the sorrow that they have.”
UNC rallied to start the second half with a 12-1 run but couldn’t take the lead as Dayton’s shooting kept the Flyers ahead.
Junior three-point marksman Will Graves did everything he could to keep UNC in the game. His 19 second-half points and 7-for-13 shooting from beyond the arc just weren’t enough.
Drew’s 12 points and eight assists couldn’t pull the Tar Heels ahead, nor could Thompson’s third straight double-double.
And after Dayton received the trophy, a teary-eyed Drew walked off the floor with his teammates.
“It killed me,” Drew said. “Watching somebody else have what you tried so hard and what you fought so hard for.”
The four NIT wins did allow for seniors Thompson and Ginyard to end their careers with better memories despite the 20-17 season.
“I’ve been very lucky in my life to coach people like Deon and Marcus,” Williams said. “Lord willing, I’ll be able to continue to do that.”
Ginyard, an emotional leader in UNC’s NIT run, shot 1-for-3 from the field in his final game. Thompson’s 152 games played is an NCAA record. In his career at North Carolina, he never missed a game.
Thompson said he realized that he was playing his last game on the bus ride to the stadium, but Ginyard said he was “blank.”
“Some little part of me thinks we’re going to go back and take a couple of weeks off and we’ll all be back together again,” Ginyard said. “But the other part of me knows that ain’t true.”
The NIT run also provided a chance for Drew, UNC’s oft-maligned point guard, to show his growth heading into next season.
Drew hit critical game-deciding layups in the Tar Heels’ final three wins — including the game winners against Mississippi State and UAB.
“I look back and maybe if I’d have played like that, we probably wouldn’t be here right now,” Drew said.
UNC’s touted freshman class didn’t show its potential.
While Henson and Dexter Strickland both provided solid minutes in the NIT, the title game was a regression for both.
Henson spent the game mired in foul trouble, finishing with five points and one rebound while playing only 21 minutes. Strickland finished with one rebound, no points and two turnovers.
Fellow freshman Leslie McDonald shot 0-for-2 in the game.
“Overall, we wanted to have a chance to win a national championship,” Henson said. “So that’s still the same. But it’s good to make some strides and make the best of our situation.”
Williams, who several times during the regular season said that he’d never had to coach effort as much as this year, commended his team’s performance late in the year.
“I do think we played harder once we got to the NIT,” Williams said.
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