NEW YORK — Scotty Hopson had 18 points when nobody else seemed able to score, and No. 24 Tennessee rallied behind embattled coach Bruce Pearl to beat Virginia Commonwealth 77-72 Wednesday night in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
Tobias Harris added 15 points for Tennessee (4-0), which was playing its first game since Pearl was punished by SEC commissioner Mike Slive last week for violating NCAA rules and misleading investigators.
The Volunteers will play No. 7 Villanova or UCLA for the championship Friday night.
Brandon Rozzell hit six 3-pointers in the second half, after missing all four attempts in the first half, and finished with 23 points to lead VCU (3-1). Ed Nixon added 16 points and Jamie Skeen finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds.
Leading scorer Joey Rodriguez, who came in averaging 18.3 points for the Rams, was held to five on 1-for-10 shooting before fouling out with 47.2 seconds remaining.
Both teams went long stretches without scoring from the field — the Rams at one point were 3 of 19 from beyond the arc — before Hopson scored the first three baskets after halftime. The Vols extended their lead to double figures twice later in the half before VCU made a late run.
The Rams (3-1) twice got within two in the final 6 minutes, but couldn’t come all the way back.
It was an uplifting win after a trying couple weeks for Tennessee, which will be without its head coach for the first eight SEC games beginning Jan. 8. The punishment from Slive came after a raft of allegations against Pearl that included excessive phone calls to recruits and improperly hosting their families at his home, which Pearl knew to be a violation of NCAA rules.
That punishment was levied on top of penalties imposed by the school, which included docking Pearl’s pay $1.5 million over five years and banning him from off-campus recruiting for a year.
Pearl is still allowed to coach non-conference games — and was at his foot-stomping, energetic best against Virginia Commonwealth. But the NCAA is expected to present Tennessee with allegations stemming from its own investigation in December and could hand down additional sanctions.
Until then, the Volunteers will gladly focus on the basketball court.
They took advantage of some exceptionally poor shooting by VCU in the first half to build a 25-18 lead with 6:29 to go. But despite leading scorers Rodriguez, Skeen and Bradford Burgess combining to go 2 for 17 from the field — and missing all eight shots from beyond the 3-point arc — the Rams somehow managed to get within 33-32 at halftime.
Much of that had to do with intangibles: VCU had an early edge in rebounding, particularly on the offensive end, and was 11 of 15 from the foul line over the first 20 minutes.
When the cold shooting continued in the second half, Tennessee finally got some breathing room.
Brian Williams put back his own miss with 11:34 remaining to cap a 9-0 spurt that made it 51-41, and after five quick points by VCU, the Vols rattled off six of their own. It went that way the rest of the game, with Tennessee always holding the Rams at bay.