NEW YORK, N.Y. – In all the events that were held prior to the start of Wednesday's NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal game, the Virginia Commonwealth University men's basketball program was mentioned as a "up and comer" playing with three heavyweights of college basketball.
After 40 minutes against 24th-ranked Tennessee, the college basketball world now knows all about the Black & Gold. VCU battled with everything they had, but fell to a potent Volunteer squad, 77-72, in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off. The Rams will now play either UCLA or Villanova in the consolation game on Friday.
"I'm proud of the way our guys battled for a full 40 minutes," Head Coach Shaka Smart said. "We knew coming into tonight this was a golden opportunity for our program. Unfortunately, our shots really didn't start falling until the final 10 minutes and that ended up hurting us in the end."
Senior Brandon Rozzell was lights out in the second half, shooting 6-of-9 from the field and finished with 23 points, including six three-pointers. Classmate Jamie Skeen was a force down low for the Black & Gold with his third career double-double, scoring 12 points and grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds.
Tennessee jumped out to a 16-9 advantage after Skylar McBee knocked down a three-pointer, but a three from junior Bradford Burgess and a jumper in the lane from Rozzell quickly brought the Rams within two at 16-14 with just over 12 to play in the first half.
A fastbreak dunk from Renaldo Woolridge with just under six remaining on the first half clock gave the Volunteers another seven-point advantage, but an aggressive offensive attack allowed the Rams to get the free-throw line and take a 29-28 lead with 1:47 left before halftime.
Two quick lay-ups from UT gave the Vols a 33-32 cushion at the break, but All-SEC guard Scotty Hopson came out firing and pushed that lead to five within the first four minutes of the second half.
Rozzell wouldn't let the Black & Gold go quietly, knocking down six second-half three-pointers thanks in part to seven offensive rebounds from Skeen.
The back-and-forth battle continued throughout the second half with both teams making runs as the scored was 67-65 in favor of Tennessee, heading into the final two minutes of action. However, the Volunteers would make their free-throws down the stretch and squeak out the 77-72 victory.
"The best part about this tournament is that you learn a lot about your team in a short amount of time," Smart said. "We know how good we can be if we are executing and following the formula. That's what we'll be spending a lot of time both in practice and on film reviewing, how to continue to get better."
Hopson finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds to lead Tennessee, while 2010 McDonald's All-American Tobias Harris added 13 for the Volunteers.
The Rams will be back in action on Friday for the consolation game, which is slated to tip at 2:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden.