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Not only is the Tennessee men’s basketball team headed to New York City for the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off, but the Vols are proving to be a pretty clutch team.
UT held off veteran-laden Missouri State, 60-56, by hitting nine of 10 free throws over the final one minute, four seconds, before a crowd of 16,001 Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Freshman Tobias Harris scored a team-high 15 points, including six of UT’s final 13 over the final five minutes.
“I just wanted to make the right plays and do the things that help us get to New York,’’ said Harris, who’s from Dix Hills, N.Y., on Long Island. “It means a lot to play in Madison Square Garden.’’
The 24th-ranked Vols (3-0) will play Virginia Commonwealth (3-0) at 7 p.m. next Wednesday (TV: ESPN 2) in one of the semifinal matchups. UCLA (3-0) faces No. 6 Villanova (3-0) in the other semifinal at 9 p.m.
While Harris was clearly in a New York state of mind, fellow freshman Trae Golden was envisioning himself back home in suburban Atlanta when he stepped to the free-throw line in the clutch.
Golden, who started in place of injured senior team captain Melvin Goins at point guard, went to the line with 7.2 seconds left and hit two free throws after Missouri State had closed to 58-56 on a Adam Leonard 3-pointer.
“I just calm myself down mentally in that situation,’’ said Golden, who also hit two pressure-packed free throws with 20 seconds left to help the Vols seal Tuesday’s win over Belmont. “Every time, I think back to when me and my dad (Robert Golden) would be at the gym, and he’d make me make 10 free throws in a row before we could leave.
“I was only 4 or 5 (years old), and I remember I used to cry when I couldn’t make them.’’
Juniors Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum helped ensure there were no tears on this night, scoring 12 points apiece.
The Vols led by as many as 11 points in the first half en route to a 31-27 lead at intermission.
But the Bears, picked to finish second in the Missouri Valley Conference, rallied to take a 36-33 lead in the second half when Kyle Weems scored two of his game-high 18 points on a bank shot with 15:12 remaining.
“Tennessee is a very talented, athletic team,’’ said Weems, who was matched up against Harris most of the game. “They’re definitely deserving of being in the top 25.’’
UT coach Bruce Pearl, who watched the Vols reclaim the lead for good when Hopson hit a jumper with 12:48 left to make it 40-38, isn’t so sure.
“Here’s the deal, we still aren’t playing very well offensively,’’ Pearl said. “It’s discombobulated, we turn it over too much; I have to find a way to open the lane up more.
“We have to drive, draw, dish a little more.’’
Pearl said he doesn’t expect Goins to be back to practice before Sunday. Goins injured his side against Chattanooga on Friday and re-aggravated it with 13 minutes left in Tuesday’s win over Belmont.
“He couldn’t bend, couldn’t squat, can’t turn,’’ Pearl said. “He’s got a pretty good bruise under his rib cage on his side.’’
Wednesday’s contest was the sort that left bruises on players from both teams.
Missouri State out-rebounded Tennessee 38-32, and if not for the Bears having an off-night shooting beyond the arc (6-of-26), the result could have easily been different.
The Vols continue to struggle shooting from the perimeter and scoring at the post.
UT made only four of 14 shots beyond the arc, and centers Brian Williams and John Fields were a combined 2-of-4 shooting.
Pearl said from the season’s onset this team would be a work in progress as he tries to replaces last season’s senior staples, Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince and Bobby Maze.
“You’ve just got to put guys out there,’’ Pearl said, “and find a way.’’