NEW YORK - Tennessee ran through the Virginia Commonwealth press and into the finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off Wednesday night.
The 24th-ranked Vols (4-0) scored a 77-72 victory over the Rams at Madison Square Garden and will play No. 7 Villanova on Friday (TV: ESPN, 5 p.m.). Villanova (4-1) advanced with an 82-70 victory over UCLA (3-1) in the late semifinal.
“I'd had a few games where I didn't feel like I had played up to my potential,'' said Hopson, who also had 11 rebounds in recording his first double-double of the season. “I felt like I had to step up and make plays for our team.''
The Vols had 15 turnovers, but very few came against the Rams' vaunted press.
“We prepared quite a bit for their press, so it didn't give me many problems,'' said UT point guard Melvin Goins, who had eight points, two assists and two turnovers in his first game back from a deep side contusion he re-aggravated in a win over Belmont on Nov. 16. “I'm still not 100 percent, but I felt pretty good out there.''
When Goins wasn't breaking the press, he was smothering VCU's All-Colonial Athletic Association point guard Joey Rodriguez, who made just one of 10 shots and turned the ball over three times.
The Vols pounded the ball inside and slashed to the basket in building their largest lead of the game, 57-46, on a pair of Cameron Tatum free throws with 8:30 left.
VCU rallied with back-to-back 3-pointers from Rozzell, and another 3-pointer by Rodriguez that closed the gap to 57-55 with 5:42 left.
The Rams were still down by two, 67-65, after Ed Nixon scored two of his 16 points on a pair of free throws with 2:52 left.
The Vols, however, hit six of their next eight free throws to pull away down the stretch.
UT coach Bruce Pearl liked the clutch free-throw shooting, but he felt the most important element of the game was on the boards.
“Our rebounding in the second half was key,'' said Pearl, whose team held a 29-16 rebounding edge over the final 20 minutes. “Our guys really stepped up; Scotty with 11 rebounds and Brian (Williams) with 13 was huge for us.''
Williams also scored nine points, all in the second half.
“I'm from New York City, and I'd never gotten a chance to play in Madison Square Garden,'' said Williams, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound senior from the Bronx, N.Y. “My teammates said they needed me, and that if I played well we'd win, so tonight was really just about winning for me.''
Tennessee held a 33-32 lead at the half after leading by as many as nine points early.
VCU struggled throughout the game shooting, making 21 of 68 (.309) for the game and 11 of 31 beyond the arc.
“They took us out of where we wanted to (shoot); they made it hard on us,'' Rams coach Shaka Smart said. “Tennessee did some really good things, and their size and length bothered us.''
Early on, it was Harris harassing VCU, scoring 10 first-half points including a basket that capped a 7-0 run at the 9:17 mark and gave the Vols their largest lead of the first half, 23-14.
“Tobias got us off to a great start, and that was big,'' Pearl said. “Virginia Commonwealth came in here a confident team.''
The Rams, with four returning starters, battled back like one might expect from a veteran squad. VCU held UT to just one field goal over an eight-minute span to take a 29-28 lead with 1:47 left in the half.
It proved to be the Rams' final lead of the night. Hopson scored to get the Vols back on track offensively with a transition dunk and Kenny Hall hit a basket inside to make it 33-30.
VCU closed the first-half scoring on Darius Theus' drive to the basket with a second left before intermission.