Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl admitted to some doubts about what kind of team he had because he was mixing several new faces and former reserves with returning starters Scotty Hopson and Brian Williams. But the Volunteers (5-0) throttled No. 6 Villanova (5-1) with some stifling defense to capture the NIT Tip-Off with a 78-68 victory tonight at Madison Square Garden.
Coming into the tournament, you might have expected Ben Howland's UCLA team to play the best defense, but it turned out to be Tennessee. While UCLA gave up 82 to Villanova and then let Virginia Commonwealth score 89 to go 0-2 in the tournament, Tennessee held its fifth straight opponent to less than 36 percent shooting from the field. That's a trend.
While Villanova's Corey Fisher torched UCLA for 26 points, he managed only 3 on 1-for-10 shooting against the Vols. Wildcats perimeter shooters Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns each scored 11, but the trio combined to shoot 7 of 30.
"One of the things we pride ourselves in is playing defense and locking up the other team's best players," Harris said after making the all-tournament team. "I thought we did a great job of that tonight. We focused on guys like Fisher and Wayns, and it really helped us."
Tennessee point guard Melvin Goins (pictured) was credited by Villanova coach Jay Wright with roughing up Fisher and Wayns with his physical play. That was true, but also Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl was able to bring defensive specialists Skylar McBee and Steven Pearl, his son, off the bench to turn up the defensive intensity. Some of the Vols' best stretches in their semifinal win over VCU came with those two on the floor, and the same thing happened against Villanova down the stretch.
Pearl said McBee, who also is a solid three-point shooter, spent the summer playing point guard to prepare for his role backing up Goins. Then, with reserve guard Trae Golden out with a virus, he counted on the 6-8 Harris to play in the backcourt at times.
"Having Tobias and Steven Pearl in the backcourt takes a little ballhandling pressure off," the coach said, using his son's full name. Steven Pearl played very effectively and gave us great energy tonight. He got to a lot of loose balls and made a lot of tough big-boy plays."
No doubt, the elder Pearl was thinking of a sequence late in the game with the Vols holding a six-point lead. Goins pounded his dribble out high until the shot clock ran down to about 4 seconds. Rather than try to get the ball inside to his scorers, he threw up and ill-advised three-pointer. But Steven Pearl fought for the rebound and came down with it to extend the possession, which ended with Goins making one of two foul shots for a 67-60 lead.
I question some of the judgment Goins showed running the offense. Once, center Brian Williams displayed his frustration at not getting the ball when he was open underneath while Goins pounded his dribble. But there's no doubt Goins plays a tough brand of defense that complements the length and quickness of the players behind him. If Tennesse is going to make it that tough on shooters all season, the Volunteers should do well again at tournament time.