Press wins for Vols

When North Carolina-Wilmington's point guard went to the bench, Tennessee's fullcourt press went to work. That was the story line Tuesday night in Nashville as the Vols beat the Seahawks 87-75 to win the South Region of the NIT Tipoff Tournament.

The victory sends the Vols (3-0) to New York's Madison Square Garden, where they'll tangle with Butler - a 60-55 winner over Indiana - in the NIT semifinals on Nov. 22.

As usual, fullcourt pressure was the key for Tennessee. UNCW shot a healthy 53 percent from the floor (26 of 49) and nearly 50 percent from 3-point range (10 of 21) but committed a whopping 32 turnovers against a stifling Vol defense.

"We played better defense in the second half," UT head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "But we've got holes and so much to work on. We've got to get better and in a hurry."

Temi Soyebo, UNCW's senior playmaker, picked up two fouls in the game's opening minutes. Moments later, the Vols' patented press forced a rash of turnovers, fueling a 14-2 spurt that turned a 22-18 lead into a 36-20 bulge.

Despite 18 first-half turnovers, the Seahawks closed to 42-40 by the break. They were tied at 44 when Soyebo went to the bench with his fourth foul just 1:11 into the second half. Tennessee promptly went on a 25-7 run, building a 69-51 lead with 10 minutes to play. JaJuan Smith sparked the rally with two 3-pointers, a layup and two free throws.

The lead peaked at 23 points (85-62), then Pearl cleared his bench, enabling the Seahawks to make the final score respectable.

"I like our depth and I like our energy," Pearl said. "But there's been terrifically inconsistent play. Part of it's being young and part of it's being new."

JaJuan Smith led the Vols with 21 points and 5 steals. Fellow junior Chris Lofton added 17, hitting just 2 of 11 from 3-point range but 5 of 5 inside the arc. Sophomore Ryan Childress came off the bench to contribute 14 points. Freshman Duke Crews had 13 points and 8 rebounds. Freshman Josh Tabb was a key figure in Tennessee's press.

"Ryan Childress has played well," Pearl said, adding that Tabb "didn't play well yesterday (in a 78-71 first-round NIT defeat of Fordham) but played very well today."

With Ramar Smith slowed by a sore ankle and fellow freshman Marques Johnson struggling a bit, junior Jordan Howell saw considerable action at the point, even though he was limited by a slow-healing hand injury.

"It was great to see Jordan out there," Pearl said, "and we look forward to getting him back into the rotation."

Darryl Felder scored 15 points and 6-10, 265-pound Vladimir Kuljanin 14 for Wilmington, now 1-1.

Before heading to New York, Tennessee will host Coppin State Sunday at 4 in Thompson-Boling Arena.

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