#24 Tennessee, #7 Villanova Advance to NIT Season Tip-Off Finals

Tennessee 77, Virginia Commonwealth 72

NEW YORK – For at least a while, the Virginia Commonwealth Rams (3-1) had plenty of reasons to be thankful on Thanksgiving eve night in New York City.

VCU, which entered the evening averaging 86 points per game on 49 percent field goal shooting, was held to just 22 fist-half points and hovered under 30 percent from the floor for most of its National Invitation Tournament Season Tip-Off semifinal game with 24th-ranked Tennessee (4-0) at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.

Yet, despite their horrid shooting, hurt in part, by an injury to their leading scorer, the Rams remained fortunate enough to battle a Top 25 team to the end, with a good chance to win down the stretch.

Ultimately though, junior guard Scotty Hopson’s first career double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds) and key contributions from a pair of local New York products returning home for the holiday – freshman forward Tobias Harris (15 points) and center Brian Williams (13 points, 9 rebounds) – led the Volunteers to a 77-72 victory before a sparse crowd of 6,746.

Harris was an early force inside, scoring the game’s first points and making five of his first six field goal attempts (all in the paint) to lead all scorers with ten points while helping the Volunteers to the game’s largest first-half lead, 23-14, with 9:17 left in the opening half.

That set the tone for the rest of the game, as Tennessee dominated in the paint, where the Volunteers outscored the Rams, 48-16, tallying 18 second-chance points on the strength of just as many offensive rebounds.

Out of VCU’s first time out, the Rams made ten free throws (six by senior forward Jamie Skeen, who scored 12 points, going 8-for-9 from the foul line, despite making just 2 of 10 field goal attempts) to key a 15-5 run and grab their only lead of the game, 29-28, with 1:47 to go before halftime.

A Hopson dunk with 1:13 left in the half regained a 31-29 lead for Tennessee, which took a 33-32 lead into the locker room, shooting just 39.4 percent (13-for 33) from the floor, making just 2 of 7 shots from behind the arc.

VCU shot a chilly 23.7 percent (9-for-38) in the first half, including 3-for-18 from three-point range, but the Rams hung in the game, making 11 of 15 free throws compared to Tennessee’s five, in nine first-half attempts.

Rams’ head coach Shaka Smart admitted that his team was affected by playing on ESPN in the 43-year-old program’s first-ever trip to world’s most famous arena.

While Smart appreciated his team’s fight, he noted that VCU didn’t always play in the sprit of his namesake. “I really can’t fault their effort, [we] really fought until the very end of the game,” he said, but added, “We didn’t play as smart as we usually do. I don’t know if that had to do with some nerves or being the first time in Madison Square Garden, playing on national TV. We made some mistakes particularly on the defensive end and even executing our offense, that are unlike us. The way we shot the ball for the first thirty minutes of the game obviously made it tough.”

Skeen credited the Volunteers’ defense, saying “They switched everything so they made it hard for us to catch [the ball]. So, when we would run our plays, we had places we wanted to be at. They took us out of places we wanted to be.”

Like his coach, Skeen acknowledged the venue being a factor for VCU, hailing from the Colonial Athletic Association, saying “It’s much different, [a] bigger atmosphere” than playing on the campus of conference rival Hofstra, on Long Island. “I just wish we had better results,” Skeen added.

Hopson scored Tennessee’s first six points of the second half to help the Volunteers to a 39-34 lead, but the Rams tied the game, 41-41, as two free throws by Skeen and a layup by junior guard Bradford Burgess (9 points, 5 rebounds) were sandwiched around a three-pointer by senior guard Brandon Rozzell (game-high 23 points), who after a poor-shooting first half, kept VCU in the game with a hot-shooting second half.

After going just 1-for-6 from the field while failing to make a three-pointer in four first-half attempts, Rozzell made 6 of 9 second-half field goals, including a torrid 6 of 7 from three-point range.

With Long Island, NY’s Harris doing just the opposite (missing his final nine shots after a strong start), Tennessee needed to find other offensive options.

The Volunteers regained a 51-41 lead on an 10-0 run as Williams (a Bronx, NY native) scored four points, Tennessee native, senior forward Steve Pearl, (the son of Volunteers’ head coach Bruce Pearl), scored two of his four points, and senior guard Melvin Goins (8 points) added a three-pointer on a pass from Pearl.

Rozzell made a three-pointer to start a 5-0 VCU run that cut Tennessee’s lead to seven points, but Pearl scored on a fast break layup in between a jumper and two free throws from redshirt junior guard Cameron Tatum (9 points, 8 rebounds) which gave the Volunteers the game’s largest lead, 57-46, with 8:30 left.

The Rams weren’t done yet, however, as Rozzell made back-to-back three-pointers, the second, assisted on by senior guard Ed Nixon, who scored 16 points.

After Rozzell’s three’s, senior point guard Joey Rodriguez made a left-wing three-pointer (assisted on by Rozzell) to cap an 8-0 VCU run that pulled the Rams to within 57-55, with 5:49 remaining.

It was the only field goal of the game though, for Rodriguez who was significantly hampered by an earlier ankle injury which he aggravated late in the first half.

Rodriguez, who had led the Rams in scoring with 18.3 points per game while leading the nation with 10.3 assists per game, scored just five points on just 1-for-10 shooting from the field, including only 1-for-5 from three-point range, while handing out only two assists and committing three turnovers.

Smart said Rodriguez “had a hard time getting by his man” and was “probably at 60 to 70 percent of where he normally is.”

If VCU was thankful to stay in the game shooting so poorly as a team (21 of 68, for 30.9 percent from the field) and playing with an injured Rodriguez, Coach Pearl felt perhaps even more grateful for not having to deal with VCU’s talented point guard at full strength.

“He was not 100 percent,” Pearl noticed. “They’re really good with him on the floor [at] 100 percent.”

The Volunteers responded to VCU’s charge with an 8-0 run as Hopson scored four points and Harris and Williams each added two points, to extend Tennessee’s lead to 63-55.

A four-point play by Rozzell made it 65-62, and two free throws by Nixon drew VCU to within 67-65, with 2:52 left, but six free throws (three from Williams and two from Harris) pushed Tennessee’s lead to 73-66 in the final minute.

The Volunteers won the game amidst controversy swirling around their head coach. Pearl, who will miss the entire first half (eight games) of his team’s regular season conference schedule due to a Southeastern conference-imposed suspension for violating NCAA rules and misleading investigators regarding alleged recruiting violations, commented on continuing a solid New York-Tennessee connection.

After the game, Pearl waxed poetic about former University of Tennessee stars Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld, and Allan Houston, all of whom later gained fame either playing for the New York Knicks, being an integral part of the Knicks’ front office, or both (Houston is still in the Knicks’ front office with rumors that he’s being groomed to be the club’s general manager in waiting).

“Allan Houston was sitting right behind our bench,” Pearl gushed. “Ernie and Bernard grew up here [as] high school legends,” he added.

Pearl mentioned of the trio of ex-Tennessee stars, “They are all very involved in our program. [They] attend our games, they stay in touch with our players and kids. [I] wouldn’t mind coming back and keeping that thing going.”

A bit earlier, Pearl said, “I’m listening to the starting lineups in Madison Square Garden and the first two kids, [Harris and Williams], that trot out there are from New York. So, it was special.”

The victory moves Tennessee into Friday night’s season-opening NIT final against seventh-ranked Villanova (5-0), back at the Garden, following the tournament’s third-place game between VCU and UCLA (3-1).

Villanova 82, UCLA 70

NEW YORK – The doubleheader nightcap was decided over the final 4:31 of the first half, when seventh-ranked Villanova (5-0) broke open a close game with a 14-2 run, the difference of which, proved to be the final margin of victory in an 82-70 win over UCLA (3-1).

The Wildcats continued their strong play behind 6-foot-10, 250-pound West African center Mouphtaou Yarou, who scored 13 points while grabbing a game-high 16 rebounds, and a trio of guards who combined for 61 points.

Entering the game as Villanova’s leading scorer, senior guard Corey Fisher shot just 6 of 19 from the field, but led all scorers with 26 points (13 in each half), making 14 of 15 shots from the foul line, where Villanova held a decided advantage.

Field goal shooting was even for each side. UCLA made 24 of 59 shots (40.7 percent) from the floor, including 4 of 15 from three-point range. Villanova meanwhile, shot 40.3 percent (25-for-62) from the field while making 4 of 14 shots from behind the arc.

But, with Fisher leading the way, the Wildcats made 28 of 34 free throws to the Bruins’ 18 of 24.

Fisher also got his team started fast, scoring six straight points to give Villanova an 8-0 lead just 78 seconds into the game.

Stokes later made a three-pointer to put the Wildcats up, 30-21, with 7:42 left in the opening half, but junior guard Jerime Anderson scored four of his six points to cap a 6-0 run that brought the Bruins to within 30-27, setting the stage for Villanova’s game-deciding run.

UCLA went almost the next four minutes without a field goal attempt, turning the ball over five times in that span (the Bruins finished the game with 13 turnovers, while the Wildcats committed just seven).

Fisher meanwhile, scored the next six points and totaled eight points during the half-closing stretch during as Villanova made six straight shots to take a commanding 44-29 lead at intermission.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright had counted more on UCLA staying within striking distance in the second half than his team building such a large halftime lead.

“I was more surprised we were up fifteen at the half. I knew that team was not going to go away. They grinded it. They did a good job. They stuck with their stuff, they never lost their personality. That’s a sign of [UCLA head coach Ben Howland’s] teams… that’s why I feel good about this win [and] about our team.”

Four points from junior guard Malcom Lee (team-high 13 points, 7 of 8 from the free throw line) scored four points and a three-point play by sophomore forward Reeves Nelson (10 points, team-high 13 rebounds) keyed a 9-2 UCLA run to open the second half, bringing the Bruins to within 46-38.

But, a three-point play by sophomore guard Maalik Wayns (19 points) pushed the lead back to 54-42 with 13:06 left in the game.

A layup by junior guard Lazeric Jones (12 points) pulled UCLA to within 54-46, but Villanova maintained either a nine or ten-point lead for the next three minutes, until freshman center Joshua Smith (10 points) made a layup to get the Bruins to within 58-52, with 7:56 remaining.

Reeves later scored three straight points to again bring the Bruins to within six points, 62-56, with 5:44 left, but UCLA could get no closer.

Senior guard Corey Stokes (16 points) got free underneath for a dunk, to put Villanova up 74-63, with 2:13 left, to end any further hope for UCLA.

Howland credited Villanova while lamenting some defensive lapses for his own team, saying of his opponent, “They’re a very, very good team. I thought we did a good job coming back, fighting back… we have a very young team, we have to learn from this… our foul trouble hurt us tonight. We did a better job defensively in the second half… [but] we ended up having 28 fouls, which is a lot of fouls… they got to the line 20 times in the second half, which is a lot.”

UCLA will be back at MSG to meet Virginia Commonwealth (3-1) in the third-place game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at 2:30pm EST, while Tennessee and Villanova will play afterwards on the same floor, for the tournament championship.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons). Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship). He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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