Dexter Strickland hit the go-ahead free throws with 2:34 left and North Carolina held William & Mary scoreless for the final 5 minutes in the Tar Heels’ 80-72 win in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night.
Deon Thompson scored 20 points to lead the Tar Heels (17-16), the reigning national champions who found themselves in the NIT for the first time in seven years after a disappointing season. But they weathered a flurry of 3-pointers from the Tribe to ensure they would finish at least .500.
David Schneider scored 21 points on seven 3-pointers for the fifth-seeded Tribe (22-11), who shot 16 for 43 from behind the arc and nearly eliminated North Carolina.
William & Mary led 72-69 on Schneider’s 3 with 5:07 left, but the Tribe missed its last six 3-point attempts while the Tar Heels kept getting to the line. Strickland hit four straight free throws that put North Carolina ahead 73-72, then Larry Drew II added two more. Two possessions later, Zeller stole a pass and raced downcourt for a dunk that gave the Tar Heels a 77-72 lead with 48.9 seconds left to effectively seal it.
It marked the first NIT appearance for North Carolina’s Roy Williams, who had won at least one NCAA tournament game for the past 20 seasons. He had missed the NCAAs only once before, in his first season when he inherited a Kansas program that was on probation, and had led the Tar Heels to a pair of national championships and three Final Fours in the past five seasons.
As if the sight of basketball royalty playing in the NIT wasn’t unusual enough, the game also marked the first time in 24 years that the men’s program played a regular-season or postseason game at Carmichael Arena. Carmichael was the program’s campus home for 20 years before moving into the Smith Center — which is currently undergoing some renovation work — in 1986.
Recent renovations at Carmichael had cut its capacity from around 10,000 in the 1980s to about 6,800 for this game, yet the game was a sellout and offered a surprisingly charged — and loud — environment in the building where program legends like Phil Ford, Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins once played under Hall of Famer Dean Smith.
The Tar Heels even got into the nostalgic spirit, donning the throwback uniforms from the 1957 national championship campaign that they had worn occasionally as part of a yearlong celebration of the program’s centennial season. Meanwhile, it also offered William & Mary coach Tony Shaver the chance to return to his alma mater and the building where he played in the 1970s.