Late defense, free throws help UT advance past in-state foe, avoid early-season upset
The Tennessee men's basketball team survived an upset bid from in-state foe Belmont Tuesday at Thompson-Boling Arena 85-76.
With a minute remaining, the Vols led the Bruins 77-76 in the opening round of the Dick's Sporting Goods NIT Tip-Off tournament.
Belmont center Mick Hedgepeth was at the free-throw line with a chance to tie the game, but this was the closest Belmont (0-1) would get to tying UT (2-0). Hedgepeth missed the shot and Tennessee guard Cameron Tatum came up with the rebound and drew a foul, a play that Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl dubbed "game winning."
"Belmont is a good basketball team," Pearl said. "I thought we did a pretty good job of being in control of the game most of the way. Our second-half defense kept us in it."
Belmont, of the Atlantic Sun Conference, put the first points on the board, but Tennessee took the lead early in the first half and never lost it.
For both teams, the first half was foul ridden and sloppy. Tennessee had 10 fouls in the first nine minutes. The foul troubles, coupled with an injury to starting point guard Melvin Goins, forced Tennessee to turn to its bench for much of the game.
Freshman Tobias Harris led the team with 10 points and four rebounds at the half. Preseason All-SEC guard Scotty Hopson had eight points before injuring his knee with two minutes left in the half.
Preseason Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year, Ian Clark, kept Belmont in the game, scoring 13 in the first half and was 2-of-4 from the 3-point line.
The game-changing points, however, came from the free-throw line in a game that had no shortage of fouls. Tennessee was 13-of-18 from the charity stripe at the half, giving the Vols an advantage over Belmont's 5-of-9 free-throw shooting.
Hopson helped the Vols jump out to a 13-point led early in the second half, hitting the team's first 3-pointer and then driving the lane and slamming a dunk on the next possession.
UT's lead hovered in double-digits for much of the second half. Clark kept Belmont in the game, though, while Tennessee never completely shut the door on the Bruins.
Tennessee's lead reached its largest margin at 67–52 with eight minutes left in the game. That's when Belmont started its rally.
Tennessee would ultimately have 17 turnovers in the second half. Down the stretch Belmont began to capitalize on Tennessee blunders, pulling the game closer and closer each possession.
Belmont guard Drew Hanlen hit a 3-pointer with three minutes left, while Vols center Brian Williams simultaneously committed his fifth foul, fouling out. The ensuing free throws led to a five-point play for the Bruins and cut the Tennessee lead to five.
With two minutes left, Tatum made the second of two plays that Pearl considered to be the "game-winning plays." Tatum took a charge from Clark and made both the resulting free throws, putting the Tennessee lead back up to two possessions, after Belmont had managed to cut it to three points.
The Bruins cut the lead to one with a minute left, but Tennessee's clutch free-throw shooting — which became the defining edge — along with Belmont's inability to make 3-pointers down the stretch, helped seal the Tennessee victory.
"That's what we've been drilling over the past two weeks," Tatum said of the Vols' performance from the free-throw line. "That's what hurt us in the Indianapolis (exhibition) game. Everybody has been taking the opportunity to get into the gym and shooting free throws before and after practice.
"It paid dividends tonight."
Hopson led the Vols with 18 points. Harris chipped in 16 and Tatum added 14. Tatum was also 2-of-3 from the three-point line, an area where Tennessee struggled the entire night.
Clark scored 18 points to lead the Bruins.
The Vols outrebounded Belmont 40-24.
Tennessee advanced to the second round and faced Missouri State on Wednesday.