KNOXVILLE — Between the borderline unbelievable number of fouls called in Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday night, the Tennessee men’s basketball team held off Belmont in a first-round NIT Season Tip-Off game.
The Volunteers beat the Bruins 85-76 in front of 16,783 fans — a surprising figure for Thompson-Boling these days, even for a 9:30 p.m. tip time.
“I thought we did a pretty job [of being] in control of the game, most of the way,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “But we were tentative to close it out. ... When Belmont started to press, we should have attacked more. Instead, we just got real sloppy.
“Overall, we’re going to learn a great deal from this.”
And, just barely, the Vols got to learn from victory.
Belmont, trailing 71-54, closed to within 77-76 with 36.6 seconds left. UT junior guard Cameron Tatum, freshman point guard Trae Golden, freshman forward Tobias Harris and junior guard Scotty Hopson went 8-for-8 from the free-throw line from that point, though, to put away the Bruins.
“We’re still young, and we’re still growing,” Tatum said. “We’re trying to figure a lot of the pieces out, but we’ll get there. As the games go on, and we get into more situations like that, the cream will rise to the top — whoever it is — and we’ll be ready to step up and take those big shots and take those charges or [get] those defensive stops or free throws.”
Hopson led the Vols (2-0) with 18 points, Harris scored 16 and Tatum added 14. Sophomore guard Ian Clark led the Bruins (1-1) with 18 points.
UT senior point guard Melvin Goins missed most of the second half after aggravating a bruise on his right side, near his hip. Golden filled in, with sophomore shooting guard Skylar McBee getting some work at the point, too.
The Vols finished 32-for-40 from the free-throw line, compared to Belmont’s 19-for-28.
“We’ve been drilling free throws for a few weeks, because we kind of saw that was one of our backbones,” Tatum said. “Everybody’s been taking accountability and getting in the gym and getting extra free throws before and after practice, and it paid dividends tonight.”
With NCAA coordinator of officials John Adams in attendance, the refs called 29 fouls in the first half, 19 in the first 10 minutes, 14 in the first seven minutes and 10 in the first four minutes.
The whistles hardly stopped in the second half. Forty-eight fouls had been called through 32 minutes, and the game finished with 59.
“I thought we fouled too much in the first half,” Pearl said. “I thought we did a good job in the second half, starting to get fouls on them and not getting ourselves into too big of a free-throw situation.
“But obviously we did a tremendous job at the foul line.”
According to Statsheet.com, Tuesday referee Lee Cassell’s crews called an average of 37.5 fouls per game last season, and 38.4, 38.5, 33.3, 29.8 and 35.2 per game the previous five seasons. No NCAA official’s crew called more than 42.1 fouls per game last season, according to the website, and Dan Chrisman’s crew was the only one higher than 39.8 per game.
UT will play Missouri State — which held off a late rally from Arkansas State in Tuesday’s first game — tonight at 7. The winner will advance to next week’s semifinal round in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
Belmont will play Arkansas State in tonight’s 9:30 consolation game.
“We’re going to see a different level of ball pressure and a different level of physicality against Missouri State,” Pearl said. “That’ll be one of the most physical teams we’ll play all year long. Great system, veteran team — one of the most experienced teams in the country.
“They’re on everybody’s NCAA list, as far as a team that’s going to make it.”
And the Vols might have to play the Bears without Goins, who Pearl said was “doubtful” for the game.
Foul problems started early for the Vols on Tuesday night, with junior center Brian Williams going to the bench with two in less than three minutes.
Consecutive buckets from sophomore forward Trevor Noack gave Belmont an early 10-7 advantage, but the Vols took back the lead with a 10-2 spurt. Their lead swelled to 38-27, but the Bruins battled back to cut it to 41-35 by halftime.
Thompson-Boling got virtually silent late in the first half, when Hopson banged knees with a Bruin and crumpled to the floor in pain. Hopson limped off the court, but he was cleared by trainer Chad Newman to start the second half. And start it he did, hitting the Vols’ first 3-pointer of the game and driving the baseline for a big slam dunk, upping UT’s advantage to 48-35 with 18:09 left.
UT’s lead grew to its largest point — 71-54 — on a slam from junior forward Renaldo Woolridge midway through the second half. Hanlen quickly hit consecutive 3s, though, cutting the deficit to 71-60.
Hanlen hit another 3 with 3:21 left, slicing the score to 75-68. Williams fouled out on the play underneath, and Belmont center Mick Hedgepeth hit both free throws to make it 75-70. Hopson drew a charge moments later, though, and UT quickly got the ball back when Tatum drew another charge.
Brandon Backer scored inside to make it 77-72 with 1:41 left, and Hanlen hit two free throws to make it 77-74 after Hopson turned the ball over near midcourt. Golden turned the ball over again seconds later, and another free throw cut it to 77-75 with 1:06 left.
“We weren’t very sharp to begin with,” Pearl said. “We were kind of sloppy to begin with, and then Belmont obviously took advantage of it. But there’s obviously nothing like being in a game situation and being under fire.”
The Vols failed to convert on the other end, and another foul put the Bruins at the line again with 36.6 seconds left. Hedgepeth made one to pull within 77-76, but he missed the second, and Tatum was fouled as he grabbed the rebound.
“Cameron Tatum made two plays late in the game that were crucial,” Pearl said. “He took a charge with about 2:20 left and then got a big rebound and stepped up and made two free throws. I thought those were game-winning plays.”
Tatum said Pearl has preached on him and the other veterans to make those “game-winning plays.”
“It paid off,” Tatum said with a smile.
“We survived some different things,” Pearl said. “I think tonight we survived, and we became a better basketball team because of some of the things that we did well, and some of the things where we didn’t execute.”
* Missouri State 80, Arkansas State 71
The Red Wolves (0-2), who lost 68-60 at Ole Miss in their season opener, trailed 43-29 at halftime against Missouri State (2-0) but sliced the deficit to six in the final minutes.
Arkansas State junior guard Daniel Bryant led all scorers with 20 points, and junior forward Kyle Weems led Missouri State with 18 points. Senior guard Jermaine Mallett scored 17 points for Missouri State, and senior center Will Creekmore added 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The victorious Bears shot an impressive 23-for-27 from the free-throw line.