Vols bound for Big Apple

Having punched its ticket to New York City Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee now must try to get its ace conductor back at the controls.

With senior point guard Melvin Goins out due to an injured side, the Vols got just enough playmaking from freshman Trae Golden and sophomore Skylar McBee to subdue Missouri State 60-56 in Round 2 of the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament. That earns the Vols the berth opposite Virginia Commonwealth in the NIT semifinals Nov. 24 at Madison Square Garden.

Making his first college start, Golden scored 8 points, dished out a couple of assists, made a couple of steals and committed just 1 turnover in 28 solid minutes. McBee, who also played some at shooting guard, contributed 3 points and a steal in 23 minutes.

"I thought that Trae and Skylar did a terrific job coming in for Melvin," Vol head man Bruce Pearl said. "If we did not win the game, that would not have been an excuse. That's what Trae came here for. And Skylar worked really hard in the offseason to try and compete for the point guard position or serve some time there."

As happened a night earlier in Tennessee's 85-76 defeat of Belmont, the Vols won the game at the foul line in the final minute. Up just 53-50, Golden hit two free throws with 38.7 seconds left and junior Cameron Tatum added two more with 27.9 seconds left as the lead swelled to 57-50. After a 3-pointer by MSU's Jermaine Mallett, Tatum hit a free throw at 15.8. Adam Leonard drained a trey to narrow the gap to 58-56 but Golden delivered the dagger at 0:07.2 with two more free throws.

"Trae is a confident player, and one of the things that attracted me to him (in high school) is that I saw him hit pressure free throws in game-winning situations," Pearl said. "That was attractive to me.... It's great to have a point guard close out games by making free throws."

The "other" freshman starter had a pretty good night, too. Heralded Tobias Harris showed why he was the No.1 rated power forward prospect in America last winter by putting up a team-high 15 points. He scored eight of nine Vol points during a five-minute stretch which saw Tennessee expand its lead from 44-42 to 53-48 with 1:04 left.

"When it got down to the nitty gritty, obviously we got the ball to Tobias a couple of times," Pearl noted. "We'll continue to. When you're 5-for-9, 2-for-2 from 3 and 3-for-4 from the foul line, you probably should get more than nine looks. We've got to do a better job of finding him in those situations."

Grinning smugly, the coach added: "Perhaps if he didn't turn it over quite as much he might have had a couple more shots."

Asked about his game-high 5 turnovers, Harris replied: "It's not the best stat. But some of the turnovers came on charges or going after the ball and making plays."

Scotty Hopson, though slowed by a knee injury, made some plays, too. With the score tied at 36 six minutes into the second half, he tried to put the team on his shoulders - taking six of the Vols' next seven shots. He made three baskets and added two free throws - accounting for all eight Tennessee points during that stretch - but his one-man surge produced a mere 44-42 lead. He did not score in the game's final nine minutes.

"I thought Scotty bounced back," Pearl said. "You could see the knee was bothering him. He kind of played through it but his play was inconsistent. He played with pain in his knee but, for us to be the best team we can possibly be, Scotty has got to play better."

Hopson finished with 12 points. Tatum also scored 12 and contributed a team-high 5 assists, helping offset the absence of Goins.

"I was just trying to do whatever it takes to win," Tatum said. "Our goal was to get to New York, and to do whatever it takes - whether it was rebounding, assisting or playing defense - to try and make game-winning plays."

Not surprisingly, Goins' absence hurt the cohesion of a Tennessee offense that hasn't been terribly cohesive even with its No. 1 point guard running the attack.

"We still aren't playing very well offensively," Pearl conceded. "It's discombobulated."

No doubt. Tennessee shot poorly - 40.4 percent from the floor, 28.6 percent (4 of 14) from 3 and 64.3 percent from the foul line. The Vols managed just 8 assists versus 13 turnovers.

Still, they punched their ticket to New York. Now they just need to get their No. 1 conductor back at the controls.

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