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Dayton jumped out to an early 20-14 lead behind an 8-0 burst, and then built a 45-32 halftime margin with a 17-4 spurt in the closing minutes. North Carolina (20-17) rallied in the second half, cutting that deficit to two points on four different occasions, but the Flyers answered each time at Madison Square Garden.
A Will Graves 3-pointer with 8:45 left to play closed the gap to 59-57, but Dayton outscored UNC 13-6 over the next six minutes to put the game out of reach.
Graves led North Carolina with a career-high 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting from 3-point territory. Deon Thompson scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Larry Drew added 12 points, eight assists, five rebounds and six turnovers. Marcus Johnson paced the Flyers with 20 points, Paul Williams scored 16 points and Chris Johnson and Chris Wright both posted 14 points and nine rebounds.
North Carolina connected on 42.6 percent of its field goal attempts, while Dayton shot 48.3 percent. The Flyers outrebounded the Tar Heels, 41-34.
Graves and Thompson were both named to the NIT All-Tournament team.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Numbers Game
Prior to this championship game, North Carolina had held its previous eight opponents to a combined 37.5 field goal percentage on 185-of-493 shooting. Dayton took advantage of its athleticism and UNC's defensive breakdowns early in an attempt to change that late-season charge, connecting on 12 of its first 19 shots (63.2 percent) to grab a 31-28 lead with 7:28 remaining before halftime.
The Flyers finished the half with a 58.1 percent mark on 18-of-31 shooting, the highest field goal percentage for a half against UNC since Syracuse shot 62.9 percent in the second half in this very building on Nov. 20, 2009.
"We just had some mental breakdowns defensively and we allowed them to get to the offensive boards and get second-chance points," Marcus Ginyard said. "They outhustled us to some balls and things like that."
The Tar Heels, however, continued their woeful shooting from the past two games (37.5 percent) in the opening 20 minutes on Thursday, converting just 38.2 percent of their field goal opportunities (13-of-34).
Those divergent paths took U-turns after halftime, with UNC shooting 48.1 percent (13-of-27) while holding Dayton to 37.9 percent (11-of-29), but the adjustments were not enough to complete the comeback.
One Last Run, For Old Times' Sake
When North Carolina played at Madison Square Garden for the 2K Sports Classic in November, Ohio State (22-9) and Syracuse (25-3) helped start the trend of game-changing spurts that would haunt the Tar Heels for the next three months.
But UNC's subtle shift into consistent waters over the past few weeks has significantly reduced the frequency of such runs. It was only fitting, however, for Dayton to punctuate North Carolina's final first half of the season with a 17-4 spurt that helped build a 45-32 lead at intermission.
UNC head coach Roy Williams shared his halftime comments to his team with reporters during his postgame press conference in a small cubby hole that serves as the interview room under the Garden.
"I told them I was disappointed in how tough we were in the first half," Williams said. "I told them they were much more intense than we were but there was still 20 minutes left to play. But I thought if we came out and played with the intensity and sense of urgency that we needed to that we would get right back in the game."
The Tar Heels countered with a 12-1 run out of the locker room, but the Flyers stymied that rally with several key 3-pointers that allowed them to stay in front the entire second half.
Bon Voyage, Seniors
As strong as this postseason run has been for North Carolina, it just didn't seem right to see Marcus Ginyard and Deon Thompson spend the final minutes of their careers forced to stand on the Garden court watching Dayton celebrate the NIT championship.
Regardless, Williams' tears flowed as freely in New York on Thursday as they did last April in Detroit.
"Because of the relationship that I have with them, it's made Roy Williams a better person," the seventh-year UNC head coach said. "It also makes it harder, there's no question about that. It makes it harder right now to know that you are not going to be able to coach these youngsters anymore. I've been very lucky in my life to coach people like Deon and Marcus and hopefully, Lord willing, I'll be able to continue doing it."
When asked if the reality of this being his final game had set in, Ginyard responded, "Not really, not yet."
"Some little part of me thinks that we're going to go back and take a couple of weeks off and then we'll get back together again. Another part of me knows that's not true, but I'm going to try to stick with the first one for now."
Thompson, on the other hand, understood the significance of the moment before the ball ever tipped.
"I think on the bus ride over here, it started to set in a little bit that it was the last time I'm going to wear this jersey," said Thompson, who set the NCAA record for career games played with 152. "I have a lot of good memories and I've been blessed to wear this jersey and all of the things I've been able to do over my four years."
Emotions from the head coach and the seniors are expected following the final game of the season, but to get an accurate look at the impact of their careers, teammates have a unique way of putting everything into perspective.
"They didn't want to go out like this," a choked up Larry Drew said. "Being their point guard, I'm responsible for the way that they went out. I just went up to them and said 'thank you' for everything that they did for me and this team."