NEW YORK — Dayton denied last year's national champs another title and took home one of its own for the first time in 42 years.
Marcus Johnson scored 20 points and the Flyers handed North Carolina one more disheartening loss at the end of a lousy season, beating the Tar Heels 79-68 Thursday night to win the NIT at Madison Square Garden.
Reserve guard Paul Williams added 16 points for No. 3 seed Dayton (25-12), which bounced back from a disappointing year to capture its third NIT title and first since 1968.
Picked to win the Atlantic 10 Conference, the deep and athletic Flyers faded late and missed the NCAA tournament before turning things around and ending on a high note.
"Our guys played with great toughness and desire," Dayton coach Brian Gregory said. "We answered everything they threw at us."
Will Graves shot North Carolina back into the game in the second half, finishing with 25 points for the fourth-seeded Tar Heels (20-17), who started the season hoping for back-to-back NCAA championships.
Chris Wright had 14 points for the Flyers, as did tournament MVP Chris Johnson — who scored 22 in a semifinal victory over Mississippi.
Including the Rebels and Tar Heels, Dayton beat four teams from BCS conferences en route to the championship. Cincinnati and Illinois were the others.
Coach Roy Williams and the Tar Heels fell short in their attempt to grab a somewhat dubious piece of college basketball history. A victory Thursday night would have made them the first team to follow up an NCAA national championship with an NIT crown the next year.
With officials discussing expanding the NCAA tournament to 96 teams as soon as next year, this could be the last NIT, an event with a rich history that dates to 1938.
NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen said Thursday no decision has been made about the future of the postseason NIT, which is operated independently by the NCAA.
How down-and-out were these Tar Heels heading into the postseason? When the 32-team NIT draw was announced, they opened at 35-1 odds to win the title.
And while Dayton has been a regular in this event, it was strange to see North Carolina on the college basketball undercard this time of year. One of the sport's true heavyweights, the Tar Heels own five NCAA national championships, including an 89-72 victory over Michigan State in last year's title game.
Tom Izzo and the Spartans are back in the Final Four, set to play Butler in Indianapolis on Saturday. North Carolina was left to chase a consolation prize following a 16-16 regular season wrecked by injuries, leaky defense and a string of embarrassing losses.
The blue bloods from Tobacco Road won their only NIT title in 1971, when current Denver Nuggets coach George Karl was on the team.
There was a bright spot for North Carolina in this one, though. Deon Thompson, nursing an aching back, set an NCAA record for career games played with 152, breaking a mark held by Kentucky's Wayne Turner (1996-99) and Florida's Walter Hodge (2006-09).
Thompson had 16 points and 13 rebounds in the semifinals Tuesday night, when the Tar Heels scored the final five points in regulation to force overtime and then beat Rhode Island 68-67. The senior forward finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds in this one.
Dayton has some successful history of its own. The Flyers beat North Carolina in the 1967 NCAA Final Four, Dean Smith's first trip to the national semifinals as UNC head coach, before losing to John Wooden and UCLA in the championship game.
The Tar Heels topped the Flyers 81-51 in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Dec. 31, 2006.
Dayton was playing in its 22nd NIT, second only to St. John's (27). The Flyers also won it in 1962.
Senior point guard London Warren was held out of the starting lineup by Gregory for violating team rules. Rob Lowery started in place of Warren, who entered less than 4 minutes in and played 24 minutes. He had a team-high seven assists.
Dayton turned up its defense and held the cold-shooting Tar Heels to a pair of field goals over the final 8:09 in the first half, closing with a 17-4 run that gave the Flyers their largest lead, 45-32, going into the break.
Paul Williams hit a trio of 3-pointers during the run, and Dayton got thunderous dunks from Devin Searcy, Wright and Marcus Johnson.
Dayton shot 58.1 percent in the first half, but it was the Tar Heels who came out strong after halftime. Graves hit a pair of 3s in a 12-1 run and waved his arms to get North Carolina fans going as they chanted "UNC! UNC!"
But the Flyers had a response every time North Carolina got close.
Tar Heels guard Marcus Ginyard missed a contested layup that could have tied it at 59, and Paul Williams hit one of his four 3s on the other end with 7:46 left.
A 3-pointer by Graves cut UNC's deficit to 67-63 with 3:37 remaining, but Chris Johnson countered with a 3 of his own and a follow-up dunk to put Dayton up by nine with 2:50 to go.
North Carolina, which committed 15 turnovers, never got closer than five the rest of the way.