Vols claim NIT title

The formula worked so well in Wednesday's semifinals - stifle the opponent's star player, win the backboards, play airtight defense - that Tennessee used it again in Friday's finals.

And it worked again, giving the No. 24 Volunteers a shocking 78-68 upset of No. 6 Villanova in the title game of the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Two nights after limiting Virginia Commonwealth guard Joey Rodriguez to 5 points on 1-of-10 shooting in a 77-72 victory, the Vols limited Wildcats guard Corey Fisher to 3 points on 1-of-10 shooting. Two nights after outrebounding VCU 54-45, the Vols outrebounded Villanova 41-35. Two nights after limiting the Rams to 30.9-percent shooting, Tennessee limited the Wildcats to 34.5-percent shooting.

"I'm very, very pleased and satisfied to come to such a special place and play such good basketball - particularly on the defensive end - and to watch this team come together a little bit," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "We've gotten better. We've got a ways to go but certainly it was a program win."

The Big Orange, now 5-0, completely shut down the Wildcats' high-powered perimeter game. The Vols held Maalik Wayns to 3-of-11 shooting, so he and Fisher were a combined 4 of 21 from the field and 0 of 8 from 3. Wayns and Fisher excel at attacking the rim but Tennessee's guards stopped them from doing so, forcing them to fire from the perimeter.

"Scotty Hopson, Melvin Goins and Skylar McBee did the lion's share of the work," Pearl said. "We got a lot of stunting help from the guys that were off the ball but we built a wall and we made those guys score over us."

Hopson paced Tennessee with 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting, earning tournament MVP recognition.

"I thought Scotty stayed patient," Pearl said. "When we got the ball to him he's taking it to the basket and making those tough shots - not settling for that pullup (jumper).... Scotty turned corners and got to the rim. He was a tough cover."

Vol freshman Tobias Harris chipped in 15 points and 9 rebounds, also making the all-tourney team. Cameron Tatum also produced 15 points. Bronx native Brian Williams contributed 12 points and 7 rebounds.

"If Brian can play like that we're going to win a lot of games," Pearl said.

Goins had a poor night from the field (1 of 8) but made 7 of 8 foul shots, dished out 4 assists and made 4 steals.

"Melvin didn't shoot it well," Pearl noted, "but he played great defense, made free throws and made defensive stops down the stretch."

With backup point guard Trae Golden sidelined by flu-like symptoms, Skylar McBee had to serve as Goins' relief. McBee responded with 3 assists and zero turnovers in 20 quality minutes. McBee also hit a huge 3-pointer down the stretch.

"That's what this team is all about," Pearl said. "That's what you try to do with depth - get guys to step up into new roles. For Skylar to have 3 assists and no turnovers and Mel Goins to have 3 turnovers, our guards did a pretty good job handling their pressure."

Showing intense focus, Tennessee built a 15-8 lead midway through the first half and went up 30-20 on a pair of Hopson free throws with 5:27 left to intermission. Villanova closed to 35-30 by the break, however, then gradually moved ahead 48-45 eight minutes into the second half.

Tatum and Hopson scored on consecutive putbacks, however, then Hopson scored on a drive as the Vols took the lead for good at 51-48. Villanova closed to 56-55 but Hopson scored from the lane and assisted Harris for a dunk, then Tatum connected for 3 from the right wing as the lead swelled to 63-55.

Villanova closed to 63-58 but McBee answered with a clutch 3 from the left wing. Goins took over at this point, hitting 5 of 6 foul shots and making a backbreaking steal and drive in a 9-5 spurt that widened the gap to 75-65 with 1:12 to play.

Center Mouphtaou Yarou scored 15 points and power forward Antonio Pena 14 to pace Villanova, which slips to 5-1.

Tennessee returns to action Tuesday night, hosting Middle Tennessee at 7:30 in Thompson-Boling Arena.

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