The NIT selection committee did its job, awarding Tennessee a No. 1 seed and a home-game path to New York.
The crowd did its job Tuesday night. The head count was only 6,289 but it made up for quantity with quality, cheering long and loud.
And the Vols did their job — finally.
A 65-51 win over Savannah State at Thompson-Boling Arena moved the Vols one step closer to Madison Square Garden. But UT’s next step will have to be more authoritative if it wants to taste the Big Apple.
With just over 13 minutes to play, Savannah’s Preston Blackman drove for a bucket that cut what had been an early 17-point Tennessee lead to 37-35.
Austin Peay flashed before my eyes, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one.
I would say UT had fallen back into its December mid-major hell, but I’m not sure Savannah State, a Division I member only since 2002, even qualifies as a mid-major.
Tennessee’s 22-5 lead was a fading memory. The Tigers from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference were getting the second-chance points, the 50-50 balls and generally looking like the team that wanted to be there more.
Which is an issue in events like the NIT: Who wants to play more basketball and who is ready to go on spring break?
The teams from the lesser leagues generally are motivated, playing with a chip on their shoulder. Teams from the power conferences, well, you never know.
Elsewhere in the NIT bracket Tuesday night, Mississippi State lost at home to Massachusetts. Seton Hall, another No. 1 seed, beat Stony Brook 63-61 in a nail-biter.
Savannah State was playing in its first NCAA-sponsored postseason tournament since 1981 in the program’s Division III days. The Vols were playing their first NIT game since the Buzz Peterson days.
“We respect everybody. We approach every opponent the same,’’ said UT’s Skylar McBee. “If you do that, you don’t have to worry about being upset.’’
But at that 37-35 juncture, the Vols were in fact worried about getting upset.
So was the crowd. The fans were admitted on a general-seating basis. For many it was a rare shot at a good courtside seat, and the enthusiasm showed.
“The crowd energy was great,’’ said coach Cuonzo Martin.
The Vols needed a sixth man, because an important man was missing. Jeronne Maymon, the second-team All-SEC pick, was resting a bruised knee.
A couple of freshmen picked up the slack. Martin will take a combined 20 points from Josh Richardson and Yemi Makanjuola any night.
Richardson in fact stemmed the Savannah charge with an offensive rebound bucket that made it 39-35.
Then Makanjuola produced back-to-back heroics that ignited the crowd further.
Makanjuola, who got his first career start in Maymon’s place, stripped a driving Savannah player and fired a long outlet pass to Trae Golden for a layup and a 41-35 lead.
Next time down, Makanjuola collected a Cameron Tatum miss and scored on the rebound.
Richardson then connected on a pair of short jumpers in the lane, and it was 47-37.
The Tigers got it back to seven once, but McBee nailed the Vols’ only 3-pointer of the second half.
Makanjuola rounded up 10 points and eight rebounds in only 16 minutes. Richardson’s 10 points were one off his career best, established way back in the season-opener.
Now things get tougher, which is par for the March Madness course.
Middle Tennessee State notched an 86-78 win over Marshall in Murfreesboro on Tuesday night. The Blue Raiders are headed this way.
In a nasty mood after being upset in the Sun Belt tournament, MTSU will be stoked to get a shot at the Vols. The Blue Raiders (26-6) have won at UCLA — and Austin Peay — and beat Ole Miss on a neutral floor.
Tennessee will need Maymon back. He’s listed day-to-day.
The Vols will need the crowd energy back. We still don’t know what day or time the second-round game will take place.
And faced with a real mid-major menace, Tennessee will need its late-season form back.
The Vols better play like it’s March, not December, if they want to see Madison Square Garden.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange