April 02, 2010

NEW YORK -- No one told Marcus Johnson and his Dayton teammates the Tar Heels were college basketball's defending champs. Johnson scored a season-best 20 points, and tournament most outstanding player Chris Johnson battled back from a hip injury to make a handful of key plays down the stretch, as the Flyers held off North Carolina 79-68 in Thursday night's NIT Final at Madison Square Garden.

Dayton's victory came as the NCAA was discussing plans to expand the men's basketball tournament to 96 teams, encompassing the NIT and ending its 72-year run as an independent tournament.

If 2010's NIT is the last, Dayton is a fitting team to be its final champions. This year was the Flyers' 22nd appearance in college basketball's "consolation" tournament. Only New York's own St. John's has more NIT berths. The Flyers took home title trophies twice (1962 and 1968) before a single player on this season's roster was born.

"Obviously things have changed a little bit," said Dayton coach Brian Gregory. "But the one thing that doesn't change, when our teams put on their Flyer uniform and we play here in Madison Square Garden, we get after it, and it's important. I think we proved that over the last couple of days."

Left at home on Selection Sunday, the A-10 team racked up victories over Big East, Big Ten, SEC and ACC teams en route to the title. But, while the media reaction might be to congratulate a mid-major on winning one for the "little guys," Gregory preferred not to label his team.

"We're not a mid-major program," said Gregory. "Our guys get shoes." (Marcus Johnson gets his from high school buddy and former teammate LeBron James.) "I'd say there's the BCS, and we're a notch below that."

If Dayton's a notch below, you wouldn't know it -- the Flyers improved to 11-4 over the past four seasons against BCS opponents.

Dayton's run to the title supports the argument for tournament expansion, since the Flyers proved their mettle against power conference teams late in the season.

North Carolina, meanwhile, was sloppy on offense (15 turnovers), slow and indifferent on defense (Dayton dunked early, and often).

For Roy Williams, what a difference a year makes. Last year, Deon Thompson scored the first two points of the NCAA tournament final, sparking the Tar Heels' 89-72 win over Michigan State at Detroit's Ford Field.

This year, Thompson -- the lone returning starter -- again scored the first two points of Carolina's final game. Only, this time, it was on a smaller stage.

The Tar Heels seemed resigned to end to a nightmare season.

"It's been an unusual year," Williams said. "My dreams and goals are not to play in the NIT."

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