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March 30, 2010NEW YORK - There could hardly have been a more perfectly ugly, confusing way for North Carolina to survive in the National Invitation Tournament.
After a game full of mistakes for UNC, it was a trip-and-fall moment by Rhode Island's Lamonte Ulmer in the final seconds of overtime that helped the Tar Heels escape with a 68-67 win and advance to a matchup against Dayton in the NIT championship game.
"We've had some tough luck this year," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "Miracle plays happened against us, so we needed one tonight."
It was a controversial finish as far as Rhode Island (26-10) was concerned.
UNC point guard Larry Drew II missed a jump shot in the final seconds of the game, and the rebound squirted toward midcourt, where Ulmer briefly corralled the ball before hitting the floor after being inadvertently tripped by Will Graves.
Drew scooped up the loose ball and heaved it into the air as time expired and the Rams protested.
"Something probably should have been called at the end there," Williams said. "I don't know what it would be. I don't know if our guy tripped over somebody else, but it looked weird, and I feel badly that the game ended like that."
In addition to not getting a foul call when Ulmer went flying in the final seconds, the Rams were unhappy with an out-of-bounds call that gave the Tar Heels (20-16) a fresh shot clock with just 41.3 seconds to go in overtime.
That allowed the Tar Heels - who have won four straight games and are headed for the second NIT final in school history - to essentially close out a game that it looked like they were destined to lose in the final minutes of regulation.
Carolina trailed by five points with 1:47 to go but was able to come back thanks to some full-court pressure and Rhode Island struggling to close the game at the line.
With his team up by two with less than a minute to go, URI's Marquis Jones missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Drew drove for a game-tying layup with 55 seconds to go.
"Those are the kinds of situations I was bred for," Drew said. "I'm glad to have the ball in my hands in that situation."
With 28.6 seconds remaining, the Rams had yet another chance to go up, but Delroy James, a 75-percent free-throw shooter, missed a pair at the line.
Drew, who hit a game-winning layup against Mississippi State in the NIT first round, didn't have any last-second magic this time, missing a jumper just before the buzzer.
"The game's tied, and he pulls up and shoots a jump shot," Williams said. "That's dumber than dirt."
But the ball was in Drew's hands again at the end of overtime, and Williams said he called a set play when UNC was down late that was aimed to get Drew a 3-point look in the corner.
"I'm either dumb, or I'm confident, because I kept putting it in his hands," Williams said. "He will learn from that mistake at the end of regulation."
Perhaps more important than whether Drew was able to hit another game-winner was the confidence he has had in the NIT, a confidence that has spread to all the Tar Heels.
It allowed them to overcome the mistakes that should have cost them the game.
First and foremost, the Heels shot poorly against a bad defense. While the Rams were ranked 318th nationally in field-goal percentage defense, UNC managed to shoot just 35 percent in the game missing all but two of 17 3-point attempts.
And when they did get the rebounds, they didn't do much with them: UNC had 17 first-half offensive rebounds but turned them into just six points.
Add to that 17 turnovers and a 50-percent free-throw-shooting clip, and it's not hard to seed where the Heels struggled.
"It was definitely frustrating," said Deon Thompson, who had his second straight double-double with 16 points and 13 boards. "But we played through those things."
And they held URI to 36.8 percent shooting, meaning that every one of the Heels' NIT opponents has shot less than 42 percent.
Thanks to that and a few lucky bounces in the final seconds, Carolina has the chance to cut down some nets again, even if it's not quite as glamorous as last season's national championship.
"You can't win pretty all the time," Drew said. "But a win's a win."