BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- North Carolina will have to settle for a trip to the Big Apple instead of the Big Dance.
Deon Thompson had 14 points and 12 rebounds to lead the stingy Tar Heels to a 60-55 victory over UAB on Tuesday night in the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals.
The Tar Heels (19-16) held UAB without a field goal for nearly 10 minutes down the stretch to earn their first trip to the NIT semifinals since 1973. They will face either Virginia Tech or Rhode Island in New York's Madison Square Garden.
"We're very happy to still be playing another day," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "The first half we killed ourselves with 11 turnovers. The second half we only had four ... and that's the kind of play that you have to have."
Larry Drew, whose basket with 2 seconds left sealed a second-round win at Mississippi State, scored on an uncontested layup and two free throws in the final 46 seconds to help put UAB away.
The Blazers went without a field goal from the 10:21 mark until Dexter Fields' putback with 35 seconds left cut North Carolina's lead to 54-51. North Carolina hit six straight free throws after that.
The defending national champions are seeking a consolation prize after missing the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels' only NIT title came in 1971.
Freshman John Henson tied his career high with 14 points for the Tar Heels, who ended UAB's five-year, 33-game home nonconference winning streak. Drew scored 11 to go with seven rebounds and six assists.
Elijah Millsap scored UAB's first 13 points in the second half and finished with 18 points and seven rebounds. He was coming off a 27-point, 15-rebound performance against North Carolina State but scored only three in the first half.
Jamarr Sanders had 17 points and made 4 of 8 3-pointers for UAB, which shot just 26.9 percent (15 of 52).
"I thought we had a great season," said UAB coach Mike Davis, who had won his first 26 home nonconference games. "I thought we got beat by a more talented team. They wore us down. We were really tired down the stretch."
Bigger North Carolina made it hard for UAB to score around the basket, forcing turnovers and batting away shots when the Blazers managed to push it inside. Seven-footer Tyler Zeller blocked five shots and altered plenty more.
UAB did have 14 offensive rebounds.
"They missed some shots, but they kept getting the dadgum rebound," Williams said. "One time they got three rebounds in a row. I think we played defense for a minute-and-a-half. In the second half, their offensive rebounding was the one thing that hurt us. Our inability to rebound the defensive board. But other than that, we did some nice things."
The Tar Heels built a 45-38 lead midway through the second half after scoring seven straight points.
The Blazers managed to tie it up 47-47 when Sanders was fouled on a 3-point attempt and hit all three free throws with 4:25 left. It took them awhile longer to end a string of 10 straight missed shots, though.
"I don't think they really did anything that was out of the ordinary," Johnson said. "They played good defense, but we just missed some open looks I think we would normally make."
UAB hadn't trailed in the NIT until North Carolina hit the game's first basket. But the game went into the half tied at 25 with the teams shooting a combined 17 of 55.
The Blazers were 5 of 10 from 3-point range and 2 of 16 closer to the basket before the half.
"The first 5 minutes of the game we just played too fast," Davis said. "Then we settled down but we got right back into shooting too quick again."
Thompson is hoping to finish his college career in New York after a rough start there; the Tar Heels fell to Gonzaga in the Preseason NIT when he was a freshman.
"There's definitely some unfinished business there," he said. "To have another chance to go back there and maybe come out with a NIT championship would be a good way to go out."