Vols subdue Rams, 77-72

Scotty Hopson vs. VCU

Tennessee shut down Virginia Commonwealth point guard Joey Rodriguez and beat the Rams 77-72 Wednesday night in the semifinal round of the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

The win sends the No. 24 Vols into Friday's 5 o'clock tourney finals against Villanova, which moved to 4-0 by beating UCLA 82-70 in the other semifinal.

Rodriguez, who entered Wednesday's action averaging 18.3 points and 10.3 assists per game, made just 1 of 10 field-goal tries en route to 5 points. In addition, he finished with the same number of turnovers (4) as assists. Clearly, Vol point guards Melvin Goins and Trae Golden did excellent work on the Rams' star player.

"Melvin got after him early," UT head coach Bruce Peaerl said on his post-game show. "Melvin was physical with him, and I think that may have bothered Rodriguez a little bit. He wasn't himself."

Goins and Golden spearheaded a sterling defensive effort that saw Tennessee limit VCU to 30.9 percent shooting.

"I thought we did a pretty good job with our defense," Pearl said. "I thought Jason Shay came up with a really good scout."

The Vols (4-0) would've won with relative ease if the Rams (3-1) hadn't gone wild from 3-point range in the second half. After making just 3 of 18 shots from behind the arc in the first 20 minutes, they went 8 of 13 the rest of the way. The key figure in the rally was Brandon Rozzell, who hit 6 of 11 trey tries and finished with a team-high 23 points. Ed Nixon added 16 points for VCU.

"They shot it great in the second half from 3," Pearl noted, "and that was disappointing."

Guard Scotty Hopson posted his first career double-double for Tennessee, producing 18 points and 11 rebounds.

"I think it's what my team expects from me," Hopson said. "I had to come out here and make plays, get on the glass. The game is about possessions, so I just wanted to get us possessions back."

The Vols' New York connection played well in its homecoming. Freshman Tobias Harris (Dix Hills, N.Y.) scored 15 points. Senior Brian Williams (Bronx, N.Y.) contributed 9 points and 13 rebounds.

"The two guys that really stepped up on the boards were Brian Williams and Scotty Hopson," Pearl said. "Brian had man rebounds and Scotty had some tough rebounds. Scotty can go in there and do whatever he wants to, and at times I think you saw Scotty go in there and do what he wants to."

While Williams and Hopson were crashing the boards, Goins and Golden were taking care of the perimeter. Goins finished with 8 points, 2 assists, 2 turnovers and 4 steals. Golden contributed 3 points, 7 assists and 2 turnovers.

Tennessee shot a mediocre 40 percent (28 of 70) from the field, a frigid 21.4 percent (3 of 14) from 3 and a modest 64.3 percent (18 of 28) from the foul line. The Vols clearly won this game with defense and rebounding, posting a 54-45 advantage. After giving up 13 offensive rebounds in the first half, Tennessee dominated the boards over the final 20 minutes.

"We were the more physical team the second half," Pearl said, "and that's why we won."

Tennessee led 23-14 early but VCU eased ahead 29-28 shortly before halftime. The Vols led just 33-32 at the break, despite limiting the Rams to 23.7-percent shooting (9 of 38) from the field.

Hopson hit Tennessee's first three baskets of the second half and the Vols eventually pulled ahead by 11 at 57-46 with 8:30 remaining. Rozzell hit a pair of 3s and Rodriguez added another, however, as the Rams made a 9-0 run that narrowed the gap to 57-55 with 5:45 remaining.

Hopson sandwiched a drive and a pair of free throws around two foul shots by Harris, padding the lead to 63-55. The Rams came scrapping back again, however, whittling the deficit to 67-65 with 2:52 to go.

Williams, a career 51.6 percent foul shooter, made three of four free throws at this point, padding the lead to 70-65 with 2:31 to play. The Rams would get no closer than five the rest of the way.

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