CHAPEL HILL/CARMICHAEL AUDITORIUM — They aren’t finished just yet. North Carolina, which limped into the NIT after the horrifying season that’s been chronicled here and everywhere else, utilized a raucous crowd to defeat William & Mary 80-72 in the opening round of the tournament.
Unlike the NCAA Tournament, which creates neutral venues for every game, the first three rounds of the NIT take place at the higher-seeded team’s home court. And because Carolina — seeded No. 4 in its bracket — is undertaking renovations at the Smith Center, the Tar Heels’ former home became the default option.
And what a stroke of good fortune it was. From the opening tap, the Tar Heels played with far greater intensity and joy than they have all season. Roy Williams described the crowd as “sensational” after the game, and there’s little question that the Heels benefited from the building’s emotion to fight back from a late deficit — something they’ve struggled to accomplish all year.
Sophomore Tyler Zeller had 13 points and five rebounds, and most importantly he came up with a late steal for a dunk that gave the Heels a slight cushion. Deon Thompson also did his part to defend the building’s sacred virtue, leading the team with 20 points and adding eight rebounds.
In all, the Heels notched 18 assists against only 11 turnovers, when in numerous other contests their errors easily outpaced their well-executed offensive plays. They also shot a healthy 49 percent, actually getting out into transition and getting the easy buckets that have been elusive.
William & Mary certainly presented a unique challenge. The Tribe attempted 43 three-point attempts, something Williams said he’d never seen (though, being truthful, he is slightly prone to hyperbole).
He also noted that he “enjoyed” watching his team compete with passion and that they seemed to have fun playing the game, something that was absent most of the season.
Unfortunately for both the team and the fans, Carolina now must leave Chapel Hill and visit No. 1 seed Mississippi State in a game the Heels will be expected to lose. If they do somehow win, however, they could end up hosting N.C. State at Carmichael if the Wolfpack also win their next game.
If that happens, all the people poo-pooing the NIT will eat those words.
To see the UNC/W&M box score, click here.