NEW YORK -- All the talk around Tennessee so far this season has been about coach Bruce Pearl and his upcoming suspension for violating NCAA rules and misleading investigators.
After the 24th-ranked Volunteers' 78-68 victory over No. 7 Villanova on Friday in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off, it may be time to start talking about the players.
"It would be good for people to write about these kids and how we play," said Pearl, who was suspended for Tennessee's first eight Southeastern Conference games. "We're in the season right now. And I think the focus should be shifted to our season and where we're at. Obviously I'm happy for the guys. We've handled some adversity. Now we have to handle some success. That will be the next step for this basketball team."
Scotty Hopson scored 18 points for Tennessee (5-0), while senior point guard Melvin Goins was the key late for the Volunteers, scoring seven of his nine points and coming up with two big steals in the final 2:17.
Goins and Hopson did an outstanding defensive job on Villanova's three guards, considered one of the best backcourts in the country.
Corey Fisher finished with three points on 1-of-10 shooting from the field for the Wildcats (5-1), while Maalik Wayns had 11 points on 3-for-11 shooting and Corey Stokes had 11 on 3-for-9 shooting. In an 82-70 semifinal win over UCLA, Fisher had a career-high 26 points, Wayns had 19 and Stokes 16. They shot a combined 18 for 45. Against Tennessee they shot 7 for 30.
"I thought Goins' defense, I thought the physicality of his defense and the ball pressure he put on Wayns, I thought was very, very significant," Pearl said. "And I thought Scotty's length bothered Corey and Scotty stayed down and Corey was getting some shots he was getting but he wasn't getting to the rim and he was having to shoot over that 6-foot-6 frame."
Villanova coach Jay Wright was in complete agreement with his counterpart.
"I think they list Goins at 180 [pounds]," Wright said. "He looked like a defensive back of a football team to me. He is broad-shouldered. He is strong and gets real low. He was very, very physical. The bigs help. Very good defensive team. They didn't give Fish many 1-on-1 opportunities. Early he got some looks. He got good looks and missed them."
Tennessee took the lead for good on a rebound basket by Hopson with 11:52 to play. Villanova was never able to get any kind of a run going as its three-guard offense couldn't get going against the Volunteers.
The closest Villanova could get the rest of the way was five points. Hopson, the tournament MVP, scored on a drive to make it a 7-point game and Goins then stole the ball from Wayns and went in for a breakaway layup.
When Stokes hit a 3 to get Villanova within 71-65, Goins made two free throws, then stole the ball again and was fouled before adding another two foul shots.
"He makes those free throws down the stretch," Pearl said. "It's terrific. We're not a young team, we're a new team. ... I had some senior guys who were backups. Those guys are all starters now."
Tatum had 17 points for the Volunteers while freshman Tobias Harris had 15 points and nine rebounds.
"We worked all year to get to this point," Hopson said. "We're still learning. Still battling. Still just want to win championships, come out and compete every day. It's a whole process to get to where we want to be. I think this team can still get better. It's a long way to go."
Villanova finished 4 of 21 from 3-point range with Stokes' 3 of 8 the best effort.
"They played really aggressive," Fisher said. "Coach told us they were going to come out and play and that's what they did. They came out and played really aggressive. We missed some shots and they didn't quit during the whole game."
Tennessee, which beat Virginia Commonwealth 77-72 in the semifinals, had a 10-point lead in the first half and led 35-30 at halftime. The Wildcats opened the second half with a 9-2 run to take their first lead of the game.
"When we got the lead, Coach just told us to keep a great attitude," Fisher said. "That's all he kept saying, 'Attitude. Keep pounding at the rock.' We continued to play hard."
Wright complimented Pearl.
"I have a lot of respect for him. I know he's a good guy. I do know it. I know he has integrity," Wright said. "This business is tough. It can get to you. He might have skipped, but I admire the way he's handling all of it. His team, man, he's doing a great job coaching."