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North Carolina (20-16) built a 25-19 lead behind 20 points in the paint and dominance on the backboards, but Rhode Island used an 11-2 spurt to retake the lead at 30-27 before the two teams entered halftime knotted at 30.
After five ties in the first 10 minutes after intermission, the Rams slowly pulled away, claiming a 59-54 lead with 1:47 left to play. That's when Drew took over, knocking down a jumper before penetrating the lane on two separate occasions to add three more points to the scoreboard and tie the game with 55 seconds remaining.
The sophomore point guard attempted the game winner from the top of the key as time expired, only to watch it careen off the rim. Drew also missed a shot with four seconds remaining in overtime that led to a mad scramble for the ball at midcourt as time expired. One Rhode Island fan expressed his anger at the lack of a foul call by pelting a security guard with a plastic bottle on the court.
It helped that Rhode Island missed five of its final six free throw attempts in regulation, including the front end of two one-and-ones.
Deon Thompson scored 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds for North Carolina. Tyler Zeller added 12 points and four rebounds, while John Henson contributed six points, 12 rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Keith Cothran paced the Rams with 23 points and also grabbed eight rebounds. Lamonte Ulmer posted a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and Delroy James added 13 points and eight rebounds.
North Carolina connected on 34.9 percent (29-of-83) of its field goal attempts, while Rhode Island shot 36.8 percent. The Tar Heels outrebounded the Rams, 60-45.
UNC will face Dayton at 7 pm (ESPN) on Thursday for the NIT championship.
INSIDE THE GAME
Drew's Heroics… or Not?
It seemed natural to focus on Larry Drew during the postgame press conference. After all, the sophomore delivered crucial points down the stretch for the third-straight postseason game, scoring the final five points of regulation on Tuesday to force overtime.
But behind the bright lights of two baskets and a free throw stood a coach that wasn't overly impressed with his point guard's play.
"You guys have your own opinion; I didn't think he made any plays hardly at all down the stretch tonight, and he has made plays," UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters following the game. "He threw it away, missed the layup down the lane. It's not the kind of performance we would like to have but he has gotten better and better and better."
Following a UNC timeout with 24 seconds left in regulation with the game tied at 59, Drew appeared to wait too long to start his move to the basket, having to settle for a long jumper from the top of the key for the potential game-winner.
"I told him, the score is tied, and he pulls up and shoots a jumpshot?" Williams said. "That's dumber than dirt. Take the dadgum ball to the basket. I don't think we'll ever see Larry Drew make that mistake again… Attack, don't pull up and shoot a 25-foot jumpshot. I can do that."
But Drew's teammates appreciated his ability to score down the stretch and put UNC in position to win for the sixth time in eight games.
"Larry's done a great job making plays when we need him to," Marcus Ginyard said after grabbing 10 rebounds. "In late game situations we're putting it in his hands and letting him make a play. I think he's done a great job these last couple of games of showing us that he wants to be in that position and that he's going to make a play."
Even Williams relented when asked about Drew's increased confidence in late game situations, saying, "Well, I'm either dumb or confident, because I kept putting it in his hands."
One thing is for sure – at least somebody is finally calling for the ball at the end of games. That's a touch of something new for this current Tar Heel squad.
Playing the Percentages
That's what Rhode Island ranked nationally in field goal percentage defense prior to Tuesday's tip, allowing its opponents to shoot 46.9 percent from the floor this season. The Tar Heels had upped their season-long 44.5 shooting percentage to 46.6 percent during NIT play.
On the other end of the court, the Rams had been connecting on 44.7 percent of their field goal attempts, while North Carolina was holding its opponents to a combined 37.6 field goal percentage over the past seven contests.
The percentages were not going to work out in someone's favor, but that line was blurred until the final questionable scramble that left the referees holding their whistles in their hands.
Rhode Island made seven of its first 26 field goal attempts (26.9), but finished the game by connecting on 18 of its final 42 shots (42.9). The Tar Heels only managed a 34.9 percent shooting display, but they leaned heavy on 50 points in the paint and 27 offensive rebounds to lessen the blow.
North Carolina won for the first time in 13 tries this season when shooting below 40 percent.
Lost in Transition
Rhode Island entered Tuesday night's contest averaging 76.3 points per game – including an 80.0 ppg mark in the NIT – thanks to an up-tempo style that parallels Williams' preferences at North Carolina. But the Rams have managed to control the chaos this season, delivering a ridiculous plus-4.7 turnover margin, good for 5th nationally.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, have shown a penchant for playing out of control in transition-fueled settings and that old nemesis reared its head again against the Rams. UNC's 17 turnovers don't fully encapsulate its frenetic actions displayed on the Garden's floor. Wild passes, ball bobbles, poor shots and one missed slam dunk plagued the Tar Heels, especially when Dexter Strickland was running the show.
With UNC holding a 68-67 lead in overtime with the ball in hand and two minutes left on the clock, Thompson committed his team's final turnover in a halfcourt set to give Rhode Island an opportunity to regain the lead.
Fortunately for North Carolina, its borderline out-of-control fastbreak play was contagious. The Rams' 18 turnovers were their most since coughing up 20 against Drexel on Dec. 29, 2009.
"One of the players said in the locker room, sometimes it helps to win ugly, and we did win ugly today," Williams said, whose team finished with 16 fastbreak points.