NEW YORK -- Tennessee came to New York hoping to find an identity, regardless of whom the Volunteers played.
So far, the definition of this team is and may have to be its defense.
The Vols kept upstart Virginia Commonwealth just out of reach in Wednesday night’s 77-72 victory in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden. The lead was just one point at halftime despite VCU shooting less than 20 percent on 3s and less than 24 percent overall. The Rams shot better in the second half, but when it mattered most, Tennessee was there to defend, block a shot and finish the necessary play.
“We’ve been an up-and-down team since I’ve been here, but we were able to drop back and play defense,’’ said UT’s Scotty Hopson, who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds. “We’re putting this together and when we do we’ll be a team to reckon with.’’
The plan for the Vols is to ensure that Williams, who has shed weight and is playing some of the best basketball of his career, can be effective alongside the heralded Harris.
Harris, a Long Island native, finished with 15 points and four boards. Williams had a team-high 13 rebounds (out of the team's impressive 54) and many were extremely timely for the Vols. He also added nine points and a pair of key blocks. Every freshman needs a mentor when he arrives in college basketball and the once-maligned Williams has become Harris' for the time being.
“He’s helped me a lot,’’ Harris said. “He’s a big player inside. He rebounds very well. He did a lot of key things for us down the stretch. He’s a great passer and with me we can be a great inside-out tandem.’’
Harris has the face-up game. Williams the post game.
“I think we’re complementing each other very well,’’ Williams said.
But the need is for the two of them to be defensive anchors. VCU didn’t pose the type of threat inside that the Vols will see from Villanova in Friday’s championship game or against any of the teams in the SEC East, notably Georgia’s Trey Thompkins.
As has been well-documented, the Vols are dealing with constant controversy because of the NCAA investigation and the admission of guilt from head coach Bruce Pearl. An NCAA notice of allegations will bring that back when it comes out sometime in December. Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton said Wednesday that the investigation is complete and the report is being written, so the school hopes to receive the document -- which will also include football and baseball -- sometime soon so it can respond and get in front of the NCAA committee on infractions as soon as possible.
But for now at least, maybe this quality win and the prospect of playing a top-10 team (Villanova) in a tournament title game will go a long way toward putting the attention on the team.
“This victory takes what’s happening off the court of our minds,’’ Williams said. But when asked if it had been a distraction, he quickly said, “Not for us. We’re focused on the basketball.’’
And it showed Wednesday with a solid defensive effort. It wasn’t up-and-down Tennessee basketball. But for now, the Vols don’t have to do that. They just have to ensure that they can defend inside, score enough in the low post and make sure the most talented players -- notably Harris and Hopson -- get the ball at the right time.
“We’re going to be a tough team,’’ said Tennessee’s Cameron Tatum. “We won’t get pushed around. For a couple of years we’ve tried to have that as our identity. That’s what we’re trying to form.’’