North Carolina wanted to extend its season one more game. To do so, it had to extend it another five minutes, first.
The Tar Heels (20-16) needed overtime to beat Rhode Island 68-67 at Madison Square Garden in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament. They will play Dayton on Thursday for the NIT championship.
North Carolina was trailing 59-54 with 1 minute, 29 seconds left in regulation, but point guard Larry Drew II scored his team’s final five points – on a jumper, a free throw, and a drive to the basket – to knot the score 59-59 with 55 seconds left.
After Rhode Island’s Keith Cothran missed two free throws with 26.9 seconds left (the Rams missed four of their final five in regulation, including the front end of two one-and-ones), the game went to the five-minute extra period when Drew’s long jumper was partially blocked.
Two Deon Thompson free throws with about two minutes left gave North Carolina a 68-65 lead in overtime. Cothran’s shot off the glass cut it to 68-67, but North Carolina survived down the stretch when the Rams missed two shots, then stepped out of bounds on a defensive rebound in the final minute, giving the Tar Heels the ball and a fresh shot clock.
Thompson led the Tar Heels with 16 points.
North Carolina was leading 14-12 when it broke things open, briefly, with a 7-3 run that included three offensive rebounds on one possession before freshman Travis Wear finally scored. Leslie McDonald also made a 3-pointer, and Will Graves scored in transition to make it 21-15.
But after Thompson scored to give his team a 25-19 lead with 8:20 left, North Carolina managed only two field goals the rest of the half – one from sophomore Tyler Zeller, and another from Thompson on a three-point play that knotted the score at 30-30.
North Carolina turned the ball over six times during that time period, missed four free throws and multiple layups and putbacks. Both teams were shooting 31 percent at the break.
North Carolina’s scoring woes continued into the second half, too, as Thompson – 4-for-13 in the first half, missed his first three shots of the second before his putback knotted the score 36-36.
Trailing 46-44 with about 10 minutes left, the Tar Heels started pulling away, again, when Dexter Strickland scored on back-to-back layups, Thompson scored on an inside move, and – after freshman John Henson missed a dunk off the back of the rim – Thompson buried a free throw to make it 51-46 with 7:59 left.
But Rhode Island countered that 7-0 run with an 8-0 comeback, taking back a 54-51 lead on an alley-oop dunk by Lamonte Ulmer.
A dunk by North Carolina’s Graves cut the Rams’ lead to 54-53, and a free throw by Graves cut Carolina’s deficit to 56-54 with 4:23 left. Marquis Jones scored for Rhode Island to extend the lead to 58-54 – and on North Carolina’s next four possessions, the Tar Heels were 0-for-3 with a turnover.
Rhode Island had the highest RPI of any team to miss the NCAA tournament once all the league tournaments were sorted out. The Rams also went on the road to beat Boston College and Virginia Tech, something that North Carolina failed to accomplish.
Rhode Island was playing in its first NIT semifinals since the 1945-46 season, when the Rams lost to Kentucky in the championship game.