NEW YORK (AP) — North Carolina will get to play for another title after all.
Deon Thompson had 16 points and 13 rebounds, and fourth-seeded North Carolina survived a frantic final few seconds to defeat Rhode Island 68-67 in overtime Thursday night and reach the NIT championship game.
Will Graves added 14 points and Tyler Zeller 13 for the Tar Heels (20-16), who will try to make some bittersweet history Thursday night against Dayton by becoming the first school to follow a national title with an NIT title.
North Carolina had possession with about 5 seconds remaining in overtime and the shot clock about to expire when Larry Drew II forced up a wild shot. The rebound eventually wound up in the hands of Rhode Island's Lamonte Ulmer, who lost control as he rushed up court moments before the buzzer sounded, never coming close to getting off a shot.
Ulmer had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Rams (26-10), who were trying to reach the NIT championship game for the first time since the 1945-46 season. Keith Cothran scored 23 points and Delroy James finished with 13.
North Carolina sent the game to overtime by scoring the final five points of regulation, including Drew's driving basket with 55 seconds remaining, but both teams had opportunities to avoid playing the extra session.
James missed two free throws with 28.6 seconds left and North Carolina tracked down the rebound to get the final shot. After a timeout, though, Drew allowed the clock to run down to 6 seconds remaining before taking a closely guarded 3-pointer — he'd missed his first three tries — that never had a chance of going in.
Defense played a big part in the Tar Heels' victory.
The bigger, lankier team from the ACC ended up with 27 offensive rebounds and 60 total, compared to 45 for the Rams. Rhode Island also turned the ball over 18 times, including that critical miscue with the seconds ticking down in overtime.
It was a strange sight to see North Carolina, the bluest of the bluebloods, playing on a Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden — especially when the most important games are being played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Injuries and inexperienced combined to send the Tar Heels' season spiraling out of control, and they never recovered until their chances of making the NCAA tournament — and defending the title they earned by beating Michigan State last March — had disappeared entirely.
Relegated to playing in the tournament for also-rans, the Tar Heels have gone on the road to defeat two teams in Mississippi State and Alabama-Birmingham that were sitting squarely on the bubble on selection Sunday, then knocked off a Rhode Island team that had the best RPI of any program that failed to make the NCAA tournament.
The season still ended up being a success for Rhode Island, which could have matched the school record for wins in a season had it won the NIT championship.
The Rams' faithful certainly turned out in droves for the semifinals, easily outnumbering the Tar Heels fans clad in baby blue. They kept cheering until the final turnover in overtime, imploring a team full of upperclassmen for one more chance in the spotlight.
That chance will instead go to North Carolina.