NEW YORK — North Carolina's 2010 season ended with a turnover, 700 miles from Indianapolis and the Final Four.
The Tar Heels (20-17) made the NIT championship game on a combination of grit, luck, and big late-game plays, but Dayton's pressure and clutch shooting were too much for North Carolina to overcome in the 79-68 final decision.
"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."
North Carolina fell behind by 13 points in the first half as the Flyers shot 58 percent from the floor in the opening 20 minutes. The Tar Heels rallied with a 12-1 run to open the second half but then, their season — extended three times against improbable odds — finally ran out of gas.
Larry Drew II, the Tar Heels' savior in the last three NIT games, couldn't bring them back with late-game drives.
Will Graves' 19 second-half points and seven three-pointers couldn't, and neither could Deon Thompson's third straight double-double.
And after their efforts fell short, the Tar Heels stood on the court after the buzzer sounded to watch Graves and Thompson receive all-tournament recognition while Dayton (25-12) celebrated. Drew had tears in his eyes as he walked off the court.
"It killed me. … Watching somebody else have what you tried to hard and what you fought so hard for," Drew said.
Dayton's pressure defense exploited UNC's biggest weakness: turnovers. North Carolina turned the ball over 15 times in the game and 10 times in the first half.
The Flyers provided an interesting viewpoint for Williams, who commended their effort and intensity. Williams has said repeatedly during the season that he's had to coach effort more than he ever has before.
"I think we started to play harder once we got into this NIT," Williams said.
The game concludes the most disappointing season in Williams' UNC tenure. The Tar Heels finished 10th in the ACC, suffered a 32-point loss to Duke to cap the regular season, lost in the first round of the ACC tournament, and only made the NIT field as a No. 4 seed.
But once in the NIT, UNC won four straight games — all close games, and three on late buckets from much-maligned point guard Drew.
"I look back and maybe if I'd have played like that, we probably wouldn't be here right now," Drew said.
The game also closed out the careers of Thompson and Marcus Ginyard, UNC's two senior starters.
Thompson holds the NCAA record for most games played with 152, and never missed a game at UNC.
Ginyard ended his five-year career as an emotional leader with just two points on 1-for-3 shooting. His last play was a foul.
"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."
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 did allow for Ginyard and Thompson to see some success for an otherwise dark season, but it also allowed for UNC's touted freshman class to show their potential.
While John 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. 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."
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