Mission statement

After losing both games in last year's Preseason NIT at New York City, Tennessee's basketball players were on a mission to do better on their return to the Big Apple area.

Mission accomplished ... barely. The Vols nipped West Virginia 74-72 Friday night in the semifinals of the Legends Classic at Newark, N.J., earning the berth opposite Texas (a 102-87 winner over New Mexico State) in today's 7 p.m. EST title game.

"It'll be a track meet," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show.

By comparison, Friday's game was competed at snail-pace. West Virginia, coached by Bob Huggins, played a physical and aggressive style of defense that gave Tennessee considerable trouble.

"We will not be guarded that physically, that aggressively again," Pearl said. "They denied every pass."

Still, the Big Orange seemed to have the game in hand with 6:57 to go, leading 61-52 with All-American Chris Lofton at the foul line for a one-and-one. Tennessee made just 11 of 18 free throws down the stretch, however, and nearly let the game slip away.

First, Lofton missed the front end of the one-and-one. Fouled on the putback attempt, Duke Crews missed two free throws. Da'Sean Butler hit a 15-footer for the Mountaineers, and it was 61-54. After an offensive foul on UT's Tyler Smith, Butler hit a 3-pointer, and it was 61-57.

After Ramar Smith was called for carrying the ball, Alex Ruoff scored off a backdoor layup, and it was 61-59. Lofton lost his footing and the ball, then Butler made one of two foul shots. Suddenly, with 4:48 left, it was a 61-60 game.

Jordan Howell hit the front end of a one-and-one to open a 6-0 spurt that concluded with a 3 by Lofton and two foul shots by Tyler Smith. Up 67-60 with 2:47 remaining, Tennessee still wasn't out of the woods.

A 6-footer by Butler and a 3 by Wellington Smith narrowed the gap to 67-65 but Lofton hit a pair of free throws for a 69-65 lead with 1:26 left. Darris Nichols hit a layup but Butler missed a potential game-tying 16-footer with 40 seconds left.

JaJuan Smith sank a pair of free throws for Tennessee at 0:35.5, then Butler missed a six-footer. Lofton stepped to the line with a chance to expand a 71-67 lead with 23.4 seconds left but misfired twice. A Ruoff 3-pointer closed the deficit to 71-70 with 14.2 seconds left.

JaJuan Smith hit a couple of clutch free throws at 13.2, pushing the lead to 73-70. After a missed 3 by Ruoff, JaJuan made one of two foul shots, giving the Vols a 74-70 cushion with three seconds remaining. West Virginia banked home a desperation basket at the buzzer to secure the final margin.

Lofton led the Vols (5-0) with 19 points. Wayne Chism added 17 and JaJuan Smith 15. Butler scored 16 to pace the Mountaineers (2-1), while Nichols chipped in 15 and Ruoff 14.

Tennessee shot just 39.6 percent from the field, 31.8 from 3-point range and 66.0 percent (25-38) from the foul line. West Virginia shot 39.0 percent, 30.4 from 3 and 79.2 from the foul line. The Mountaineers outrebounded the Vols 42-33.

With both teams playing ferocious defense, the Vols led 11-10 midway through the first half. Tennessee had made 4 of 10 from the field, WVU 5 of 15.

"It looked like it was going to be a game in the 50s, the way we were going for a while," Pearl said.

Tennessee led 33-28 at the half and trailed only once in the second half (41-39). Still, the Vols never really had the game under control.

"This is NOT a game we win last year," Pearl said. "We absolutely lose this game because we would not have been able to guard them like we did.

"It was a grinder."

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