After staying on the court with his team to watch Dayton accept the National Invitation Tournament trophy, North Carolina point guard Larry Drew II walked to the locker room with tears starting to well.
“Nobody wanted our season to go this way; nobody envisioned our season going this way,’’ Drew said after his Tar Heels lost to the Flyers 79-68 at Madison Square Garden. “All I can do now is look forward to the future and prepare for the future – because I definitely don’t want to feel this way again.”
The defeat marked the end of a tumultuous season that saw UNC – last year’s NCAA champions -- fall from No. 6 in he Associated press poll to the NIT bubble. Coach Roy Williams described the injury-riddled, effort-plagued last five months as everything from “disappointing,” to “tough” to “unusual,” to “frustrating." But he also said he was proud of his Tar Heels (20-17) for improving enough to win four straight games to reach Thursday’s championship.
“We just didn’t finish the job,’’ he said.
With the score tied 28-28 with about eight minutes left in the first half, Dayton closed out the half with a 17-4 run to take a 45-32 lead into the break. The Flyers shot 58.1 percent in the first 20 minutes, while the Tar Heels turned it over a familiar-looking 10 times.
UNC – which had made big plays late in its previous four victories -- came out of halftime with a purpose, though, streaking to a 12-1 run before Dayton scored its first field goal. The comeback included two 3-pointers from junior Will Graves and a couple of inside moves from freshman John Henson. After sophomore Tyler Zeller dunked it to cut Carolina’s deficit to 46-44, sections of the less-than-capacity crowd stood up and started a loud chant of “UNC! UNC!”
But the Tar Heels – despite a career-high 25 points from Graves and senior Thompson’s third straight double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds) – never cut it to less than a bucket down the stretch.
One reason: the Flyers out-rebounded them 23-14 in the second half.
“Our plan was to keep them off the glass, and that was keeping them in the game [in the first half],’’ said Dayton’s Marcus Johnson, who finished with 20 points. “We just wanted to do our best job possible keeping them off the glass.”
The game marked an emotional finale for seniors Thompson (who became the NCAA’s all-time leader in games played) and Marcus Ginyard (2 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists). Williams had said he wanted his team to win in order to try to make a more positive ending for those two guys.
But as disappointed as the duo was with the loss, they also acknowledged that the 4-1 finish would be good for the future.
“You hope that any game that your team is in is a situation where you can learn something – win or lose,’’ said Ginyard, who admitted it hadn’t hit him yet that his college career is over. “That was one of the biggest things this year, we just felt like we kept running into the same lessons, and not learning from them. Hopefully we can take a little bit from this, and realize that when we player harder than we have all year, good things happen for us.”
Now, the goal is to make better things happen next season.