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November 15, 2006
Act II of the Pearl Era getting rave reviews
• Preseason Top 25
• Preseason All-Americans
• The College Basketball Wire
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Bruce Pearl Act II can now be seen playing in the Big Apple.
No. 25 Tennessee and its second-year coach earned a spot in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off (formerly known as the preseason NIT) in New York City by using an 18-2 second half run to pull away for an 87-75 win over North Carolina-Wilmington Tuesday night in the South region final at the Gaylord Entertainment Center.
The Volunteers (3-0) will face Butler (3-0), who edged Indiana 60-55 in the Midwest region final in Indianapolis, on Nov. 22 in Madison Square Garden.
"We are going to take that Tennessee Orange to Madison Square Garden," said Pearl, who engineered one of the most shocking turnarounds last season when he took over a program coming off a 14-17 season and led them to a 22-8 mark and an SEC East title. "We've got a lot of tradition in New York basketball with some great Vols like Ernie Grunfeld, Bernard King and Allan Houston (each played for the New York Knicks and Grunfeld and King are from New York City) and now we have an opportunity to add to that."
Tennessee's tremendous defensive pressure – which Pearl refers to "controlled chaos" – is to thank for that opportunity. Playing with a much younger but deeper roster than last season, the Vols forced 29 turnovers in a 78-71 first-round win over Fordham and 32 more against the Seahawks (1-1).
The veteran-laden squad that Pearl had last season bettered those numbers only once, forcing 33 miscues in their season opener last year - a 106-83 win over East Tennessee State.
A former walk-on was behind much of the defensive success against UNC-Wilmington. Junior guard JaJuan Smith made a career-high five steals, which ignited several fast breaks.
With star guard Chris Lofton, who scored 30 the night before against Fordham, uncharacteristically struggling to shoot the ball (went 2-of-11 from 3-point range), Smith also stepped up offensively. Smith scored a career-high 21 points, including seven during the key second half surge.
"A lot of people will be keying on Chris," Smith said. "He is one of the best shooters in the nation. I'm just trying to draw some attention to the other side of the court."
While many were hoping to see Indiana and its first-year coach Kelvin Sampson go up against Pearl and the Vols, Butler does create a number of intriguing storylines.
The Bulldogs, who have emerged as a mid-major power in recent years, come from the Horizon League. That's the same conference that Pearl coached in for four years at Wisconsin-Milwaukee before coming to Knoxville. Butler is also known for playing a strictly half-court style, distinctly opposite from what the Vols prefer.
"I know a lot about them and they know a lot about us, so it's going to be interesting," Pearl said. "We are going to have to learn to cover the ball screen, because they do it as well as anybody in the country. Butler is a nightmare to prepare for, just a nightmare."
Lofton finished with 17 points despite his struggles from beyond the arc. Reserve forward Ryan Childress provided an offensive lift for the second consecutive night, scoring 14 points after adding nine against Fordham. The sophomore didn't score more than six in any game last season.
Five different Seahawks finished in double figures, with Daniel Fountain and Dejan Grkovic each leading the way with 15 points apiece.
A Look at the Rest of the Tournament
In the West, Baylor beat Colorado State in double overtime 87-82 behind Henry Dugat's 27 points. The Bears will face Gonzaga, an 88-50 winner against Rice.
In the East, No. 2 North Carolina rolled to a season-opening 103-81 win over Sacred Heart. UNC star Tyler Hansbrough scored 29 points.
The Tar Heels face Winthrop, which cruised past Iona 57-38, tonight at 7 p.m.
Belmont beat Fordham 56-49 in the South's consolation game.
Quote of the Tournament
"He's behind me of course, just kidding. He's a terrific shooter. He's got my vote for All-American. He can hit so many different shots off screens, stepping back. I'm afraid I'm going to have nightmares of Lofton, Lofton, Lofton. He's one of the best I've ever seen." – Fordham coach Dereck Whittenburg on how Lofton compares to other great shooters he has coached and played against.