CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The building was packed, loud and charged. North Carolina rolled to a quick early lead to crank up the crowd noise even more. And when it ended, the Tar Heels were celebrating a hard-fought victory on the court they called home for two decades.
It turns out they really were excited to play again -- even in a miserable season, even in the NIT.
Dexter Strickland hit the go-ahead free throws with 2:34 left and North Carolina held William & Mary scoreless for the final 5 minutes in the Tar Heels' 80-72 win in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night.
Deon Thompson scored 20 points to lead the Tar Heels (17-16), who had slid from hoisting the NCAA championship trophy nearly a year ago in Detroit to playing in the NIT for the first time in seven years.
And after weathering a flurry of 3-pointers from the Tribe (22-11), they ensured that they would avoid suffering only their second losing season in nearly half a century.
North Carolina scored the first nine points, then pulled ahead in the final minutes after William & Mary erased a 10-point halftime deficit.
"It was fun seeing my team hustle like that," coach Roy Williams said. "It was fun seeing my team have a passion. It was fun seeing my team have fun, even early in the second half when I called a timeout and chewed them out."
Tyler Zeller added 13 points for the fourth-seeded Tar Heels, who advanced to the second round to face Mississippi State. North Carolina had gone 39 years without a losing season before its 8-20 debacle of 2001-02, and this win ensured that would be the only such blip on the program's recent history.
"We came into this game looking at it as another fresh start for us," said fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard, who had 12 points. "We did a great job of getting after it, getting all the loose balls and playing together as a team -- and those are things we've got to continue to build on."
David Schneider scored 21 points on seven 3-pointers for the fifth-seeded Tribe, who shot 16 for 43 from behind the arc to nearly eliminate North Carolina.
It marked the first NIT appearance for Williams, who had won at least one NCAA tournament game for the past 20 seasons. He had missed the NCAAs only once before, in his first season when he inherited a Kansas program that was on probation, and had led the Tar Heels to a pair of national championships and three Final Fours in the past five seasons.
As if the sight of basketball royalty playing in the NIT wasn't unusual enough, the game also marked the first time in 24 years that the men's program played a regular-season or postseason game at Carmichael Arena. Carmichael was the program's campus home before moving into the Smith Center -- which is currently undergoing some renovation -- in 1986.
Recent renovations at Carmichael had cut its capacity from around 10,000 to about 6,800 for this game, yet it was a sellout and offered a surprisingly charged atmosphere in the building where program legends like Phil Ford, Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins once played under Hall of Famer Dean Smith.
"It wasn't as loud as it was in the old days because there were 3,000 more people in there, but it was a fun atmosphere for me to coach in," said Williams, an assistant to Smith for 10 years. "We've had some great games in the Smith Center, but this one was special and hopefully we can get this kind of atmosphere in the Smith Center all the time."
The Tar Heels even got into the nostalgic spirit, donning the throwback uniforms from the 1957 national championship campaign that they had worn occasionally as part of a yearlong celebration of the program's centennial season. Meanwhile, it also offered William & Mary coach Tony Shaver the chance to return to his alma mater and the building where he played in the 1970s.
"We feel like we could've won, we really do," Shaver said. "Carolina's pressure was tough. As an old Carolina guy, I was really happy to see them play with the intensity they did today. I just wish they had a few less points."
William & Mary led 72-69 on Schneider's 3 with 5:07 left, but the Tribe missed its last six 3-point attempts while the Tar Heels kept getting to the line. Strickland hit four straight free throws that put North Carolina ahead 73-72, then Larry Drew II added two more. Two possessions later, Zeller stole a pass and raced downcourt for a dunk that gave the Tar Heels a 77-72 lead with 48.9 seconds left to effectively seal it.
The Tribe played without Quinn McDowell, its top 3-point shooter who sprained his right ankle during the Colonial Athletic Association tournament semifinals.