Photo by Frank Franklin II
NEW YORK (AP) -- North Carolina is on the cusp of another championship. Not the one it wanted, though.
Left out of the NCAA tournament after a lousy season, the Tar Heels have reeled off four straight victories in the NIT and will play Dayton in the title game Thursday night at Madison Square Garden with a chance to gain a somewhat dubious distinction.
A win would make North Carolina, one of college basketball's most storied programs, the first team to follow up an NCAA national championship with an NIT crown the next year.
"Let's be honest, this was not where we wanted to be," coach Roy Williams said Wednesday. "Everybody wanted to be in the NCAA tournament."
Early departures and injuries contributed to a string of embarrassing losses that squashed the Tar Heels' hopes for a repeat.
Now, they're shooting for back-to-back titles of a different sort.
"We definitely let a lot of people down," sophomore point guard Larry Drew II said. "It's very important for us to go out on a positive note."
Dayton is trying to do the same thing after a disappointing campaign of its own.
The Flyers were ranked No. 21 by The Associated Press before the season, their first preseason ranking in a major poll since 1967-68, and picked to win the Atlantic 10 Conference.
But they stumbled down the stretch, finished seventh in the standings and missed the NCAAs.
Given another opportunity to show their stuff against other also-rans in the NIT, junior forward Chris Wright and Co. got on a roll. Relying on sound defense and strong rebounding, the third-seeded Flyers beat Illinois State before hitting the road for wins over Cincinnati and No. 1 seed Illinois.
"I just think we started in practice, holding ourselves accountable," Wright said. "We started to get on each other as a team. It is on you to go out there and execute and it is on you to go out there and get it done."
After arriving in New York, Dayton (24-12) held off Mississippi 68-63 in the semifinals Tuesday night.
"I am very, very proud of these guys in terms of their commitment to staying strong and staying together during some tough times during the year," coach Brian Gregory said. "We have played with greater poise and composure."
Dayton is playing in its 22nd NIT, second only to St. John's (27), and the Flyers are 39-24 at Madison Square Garden, giving them more wins at the fabled arena than any other school outside the New York metropolitan area.
Chris Johnson's 22 points against Ole Miss sent Dayton into the final for the first time since winning its second NIT championship in 1968.
"There are some teams that enter this tournament that are a little upset that they weren't chosen, and then there's other teams that are disappointed they didn't reach their main objective -- but realize that they probably had a lot to do with it," said Gregory, who is 6-1 in the NIT. "They're a little ticked off at themselves for putting themselves in that position, and that's exactly what these guys did. They took responsibility, stood up and said we can do better."
But the Flyers figure they still have a tall task ahead in the No. 4 seed Tar Heels (20-16), who won their only NIT title in 1971 when current Denver Nuggets coach George Karl was on the team.
North Carolina scored the final five points of regulation to force overtime Tuesday night in a 68-67 win over Rhode Island. That followed hard-fought victories over William & Mary, Mississippi State and UAB -- the last two on the road.
"They are still North Carolina. You are talking about a Hall of Fame coach. He didn't become a dud the last two months," Gregory said. "There is a Carolina way. They are tremendous in the open court. They really push the ball. They flow quickly in their secondary offense, very seamlessly, and they are extremely big."
Williams said increased intensity and desire on defense has been the key to UNC's turnaround. And though he acknowledged a win Thursday night wouldn't wipe out all the problems his team had this season, he said it would still be "a wonderful feeling."
"We've had a pretty rough season this whole season. We didn't even know if we were going to make it to the NIT," Drew said. "But we did know that if we did make it, we wanted to go out with a strong impact."