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April 1, 2010NEW YORK - While Dayton collected its trophy for winning the National Invitation Tournament, North Carolina senior Marcus Ginyard stared vacantly in the direction of the ceremony, clapping his hands softly and slowly.
Even getting their difficult season over with wasn't a painless process for the Tar Heels as they stood and watched the Flyers claim their spoils of victory following a 79-68 win in the tournament championship game at Madison Square Garden.
"Absolutely brutal," Ginyard said.
Afterward, things were no less hard emotionally on the Tar Heels, who finished the year with an improbable 20 wins but couldn't close the deal on a tournament they already considered to be a second-rate option coming off an NCAA championship season.
UNC coach Roy Williams was obviously choked up following his post-game speech in the locker room but struggled to answer whether or not the run to the NIT championship game would change his outlook on the season.
"I'll have to wait and see," Williams said. "This was the hardest year I've ever had coaching. I didn't do a very good job with this team, and that is hard for a coach to say. Time will tell."
"I know this (NIT) run was extremely important to me because it gave Marcus and Deon a better feel; it showed our kids the sense of urgency needed to be successful. So from that viewpoint, I'm going to appreciate what we learned from it."
Deon Thompson - who notched his third-straight double-double in his final collegiate game - credited Williams for the team's resilience that bought them an extra five postseason games.
"He didn't allow us to give in even though a lot of things didn't go our way this season," Thompson said. "Every day he continued to show up with the attitude that we are going to work. He gave us no other options but to continue to work, so it started right there. And it just continued to trickle down and guys continued to work and we just went on a little run here that didn't end the way we wanted it to."
A lot of the credit for that goes to Dayton, which jumped out to a 13-point halftime lead before Carolina answered with a 12-1 run to start the second half.
And even though the Flyers' shooting percentage dropped from 58 percent to 38 percent after the break, they hit big shots every time the Tar Heels threatened to take the lead or tie the game.
Will Graves did a lot of Carolina's work on offense, hitting seven 3-pointers on the way to a career-high 25 points, but that wasn't enough to keep up with Dayton, which had eight offensive rebounds in the second half.
In some ways, the loss was a perfectly appropriate ending to the season since the Tar Heels showed signs of both promise and peril in splitting a pair of preseason NIT games here.
But for all the disappointment, there was at least a hint of redemption for the Tar Heels in making their NIT run.
And even if the thought of winning the championship didn't thrill them, the feeling of not winning it obviously stung.
The sense of fun that returned to the Tar Heel locker room during this NIT run after a difficult and disappointing regular season vanished once again as the game wound down and the outcome became obvious.
Williams took his seniors, Ginyard and Thompson, out of the game with 16.2 seconds to go, and they got a standing ovation from the Carolina fans at MSG.
All that was left for them to do then was to wait.