You know, if a team manages to overachieve in the postseason, there comes a time during their run when it almost goes past redeeming the season and into counterproductive territory. The fan base starts to wonder “Where was this team all year? Why could they not have done this earlier? Maybe we could have earned a higher seed or snuck into the NCAAs with this kind of play.”
This, however, was not one of those nights.
Carolina March probably said it best, summing up the night by saying “This was definitely an NIT game.” Carolina and its fans certainly do have to feel some sense of achievement for making it to the NIT finals, but they don’t look all that different from the team we struggled through watching all year, except that this time they were playing against a near mirror image of themselves. Both teams racked up 17 turnovers, sometimes in successive streaks of 2 or 3; between the terrible passes, missed dunks and blown layups, sometimes it felt like both sides were trying to shave points. Despite the ugly overall game, there were certainly moments of brilliance, as you might expect from an NIT semifinal - some spectacular dunks from John Henson, who now just needs to develop a jump shot from more than 5 feet away from the basket to be truly deadly, and another solid game overall from Deon Thompson, who notched a double-double with 16 points and 13 boards.
And let us not forget Larry Drew, whose rise to UNC’s “go-to-guy in the clutch” may be the most bizarre development of this continually bizarre season. With UNC down 4 and two minutes to go in the game, their offense on life support and URI seemingly ready to put the game away, Rhode Island managed to go 1-5 from the line and Larry Drew singlehandedly brought the Heels back with a couple of nice crossover-drive combos, though naturally he wasn’t able to win the game in regulation with a step-back three straight out of the “THAT was what they drew up???” playbook - there goes the NIT rearing its ugly head again!
The overtime was a mix of a few nice offensive plays on both sides punctuated by a (probably) bad no-call as Will Graves tripped up Lamonte Ulmer, coughing up the ball and the game. As I said on Twitter, there would probably be an officiating controversy if anyone but UNC or URI fans were watching this game.
Overall, the negatives aren’t disappearing - there was plenty on display last night to show why UNC wasn’t an NCAA team this year, or why they would have been taken down in the first round if they somehow had made it in - but there was a little salve to put on the wounds of this year, as UNC got on the offensive boards, clamped down on defense when it mattered, and occasionally got out and ran, which was fun to watch. Progress has been made, and some of the wrongs of the season have been righted, and now the Heels get the chance to be the first ever team to follow up an NCAA title with an NIT one - another piece of semi-proud history we can be part of this year. We’ll take it!