The referees weren't the story this time (probably because they weren't the same referees), but Tennessee again survived and advanced thanks to success at the free throw line. And while the 18 for 28, 64.3% performance wasn't as good as Tuesday's 32 of 39, 82.1% effort, down the stretch the Vols were just as clutch. Tennessee made eight consecutive free throws to put Belmont to bed on Tuesday, and tonight UT went 7 of 8 in the final minute to make sure Missouri State couldn't best them either. As a result, the Vols advance to the NIT Semifinals, where they'll meet mid-major power VCU on Wednesday night, and either #7 Villanova or UCLA on Friday. Our strength of schedule says thanks.
A 31-27 halftime lead quickly turned into a hole, as Missouri State opened the second half by taking Tennessee's offense completely out of rhythm. The absence of Melvin Goins contributed to that as well, and while true freshman Trae Golden wasn't bad, he wasn't an offensive factor either: he shot 2 of 8 and had only two assists to go with one turnover. But Golden again made huge free throws to ice the game, and played solid defense. The Vols as a whole cut their turnovers in half, from 27 against Belmont to just 13 against Missouri State.
Without Goins, this is a team that struggles to find consistency on offense, and has one fewer playmaker. The Vols got what we hope we're going to keep getting from Tobias Harris: 15 points and 5 rebounds, though tonight he added 5 turnovers and 4 fouls. Scotty Hopson, who wasn't 100% after going knee-to-knee the previous night, continued to be assertive without great results, but I like the improved sense of urgency in his game, and he still had 12 points. And Cameron Tatum filled the stat sheet with a 12-3-5 with three steals.
Other than those guys though, the Vols had no one on the floor who was an offensive threat. Brian Williams was big on the boards tonight, but had only 5 points, giving him just 11 in three games this year. Golden had 8, but got half of those in late game free throw shooting. The Vols played an 11 man rotation; half the bench didn't hit a shot, and the other half hit only one each.
When Goins gets back (which hopefully, since it's just a bruise, that'll be Wednesday), Tennessee can be balanced enough to not suffer offensively in stretches when Tobias, Scotty, or Cameron are on the bench. But tonight there were lineups on the floor that were completely ineffective offensively; the Vols need Jordan McRae to mature in a hurry, because I fear we've already seen what we're going to get with Skylar McBee and Renaldo Woolridge (who was very solid defensively tonight).
We're still learning with this team, and so far so good on the most important stat: the Vols are 3-0 and made it to the Garden. The tests will keep getting more difficult - I know Wake is down, but VCU beat them by 21 on their home floor, to go with a 13 point win over Winthrop and a 15 point win over UNC-Greensboro. And Villanova is a National Championship contender. If we'd like to be one too, we need to keep growing, and keep winning. This visit to New York will be an educational field trip.