KNOXVILLE -- It was far from flawless, but aesthetics often go astray when your senior point guard leaves the lineup.
The University of Tennessee men's basketball team survived Wednesday for the second time in two nights against a mid-major menace, holding off Missouri State 60-56 in a physical, second-round NIT Season Tip-Off game in Thompson-Boling Arena.
UT advanced to a semifinal game against Virginia Commonwealth next Wednesday night in New York City's Madison Square Garden. Sixth-ranked Villanova and UCLA will play in the other semifinal.
"It means a lot to play at Madison Square Garden," said UT freshman forward Tobias Harris, a New York native. "It's a honor, but now we've got to capitalize on the situation."
Harris led the Volunteers with 15 points, and junior guards Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum added 12 points apiece. Junior center Brian Williams led UT with eight rebounds, and Tatum had five assists.
The 24th-ranked Vols (3-0) withstood a late surge from the Bears (2-1), who were picked second in the preseason Missouri Valley Conference poll. And UT did so despite senior point guard Melvin Goins missing the game with a "pretty deep bruise" just above his right hip, according to trainer Chad Newman.
Freshman point guard Trae Golden replaced Goins in the starting lineup, and sophomore Skylar McBee slid over from shooting guard to back him up.
Golden, who uncharacteristically missed two consecutive free throws midway through the second half, converted all four free tosses in the final 39 seconds -- including two cap the scoring with 7.2 seconds left.
"I haven't missed two straight free throws since I was like a child," Golden said. "But it happens, and I just got myself back together and made the next ones."
UT head coach Bruce Pearl said he learned quickly during Golden's recruitment that the high school shooting guard was a fearless at the free throw line in late-game situations. That's still the case, obviously, considering Golden's only two points came on two free throws with 20.3 seconds left to give UT an 81-76 lead in its first-round win over Belmont.
The Vols, who were 8-of-8 from the free throw line in the final minute against Belmont, were 8-of-10 from the stripe in the final 1:05 against Missouri State, with eight consecutive makes coming in the middle.
"I just think with guys coming in and getting extra free throws in all the time, putting ourselves in game-like situations -- like we're down two or up three -- I just think our guys are taking accountability at the free throw line and doing a great job of knocking the down," Tatum said.
Added Harris: "It's just repetition and confidence as a player. No matter how many fans are there or what's going on around you, you've just got to do what you do."
The Vols needed those late free throws because they shot 19-of-47 from the field, 4-of-14 from 3-point range and committed 13 turnovers to just eight assists.
Harris played another solid game with one glaring exception. He had five turnovers.
"That's not the best stat," he said.
And, most importantly, because Missouri State beat them 38-32 on the boards -- although the Vols did out-rebound the Bears in the second half.
"We did a mediocre job at best on the boards," UT senior forward John Fields said. "We've got to get better if we want to be a championship-caliber team. Defense and rebounding wins championships.
"I know we can be better than that on the boards."
Missouri State had 18 offensive rebounds to UT's 21 defensive rebounds.
"They fly to the offensive boards," Pearl said of the Bears. "It's a point of emphasis for them, and it really could have cost us the game. I was concerned about that, and I don't think we did a very good job on the boards."
Kyle Weems, an undersized junior power forward with a solid, all-around game, scored a game-high 18 points for the Bears and added seven rebounds before fouling out with 38.7 seconds left.
"It just came down to mental toughness and making the shots," said Weems, who drew high marks from UT's players and coaches. "Guys that usually make them -- including myself -- just didn't make them.
"Tennessee is a very talented, athletic team. They're definitely deserving of being in the top 25. If we can complete like that, I feel like we can compete with any team in the country."
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