KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Missed free throws contributed to Tennessee's preseason exhibition loss. The extra time spent on foul shots in the gym may have saved the Volunteers (No. 23 ESPN/USA Today, No. 24 AP) against Belmont in the first round of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
The Vols blew all but one point of a 17-point lead late against the Bruins, but hit all eight of their free throws in the final minute and finished 32 of 40 at the line for the game to hang on to win 85-76 on Tuesday night.
"That's what we've been drilling over the past two weeks," Tennessee guard Cameron Tatum said. "That's what hurt us in the Indianapolis game. Everybody has been taking the opportunity to get into the gym and shoot free throws before and after practice. It paid dividends tonight."
Tennessee (2-0) held a 71-54 lead with 7:01 to play, but Belmont pressed the Vols and Drew Hanlen had three 3-pointers as part of a 22-6 run to cut the lead to a point. Mick Hedgepeth was fouled by John Fields while scrambling for a rebound and hit one free throw but missed a second that would have tied the game at 77 with 36.6 seconds left.
Tatum hit two foul shots for Tennessee after being fouled by Brandon Baker, and Ian Clark missed another chance to tie the game on a clean 3-point shot that bounced off the rim. Trae Golden, Harris and Hopson each hit two free throws to preserve the win.
"To their credit, they are not a particularly good free-throw shooting team, but they made their free throws and put the game away," Belmont coach Rick Byrd said.
The Vols advance to play Missouri State in the second round on Wednesday night for a chance to travel to New York City for the semifinals. The Bruins will play a consolation game against Arkansas State.
Both teams played physically in the paint, and the officials made them pay for their scrappy play. Belmont was called for 32 fouls, and Tennessee was charged with 28.
The Vols combined 32-of-40 shooting from the free throw line with 53.2 percent shooting from the field. They got two free throws from Skylar McBee, another set from Melvin Goins and a traditional three-point play from Tatum to go up 20-12 lead with 11:24 in the first half.
The Bruins have made a name for themselves in the past with their sharpshooting but got a few points in the lane. Scott Saunders stole the ball from Goins and dished it to Clark for a fastbreak layup with 1:17 in the first half that cut the Vols' lead to four points, the closest Belmont would get for the rest of the game.
Hopson took a hard fall with about a minute left before halftime and hobbled to the locker room favoring his right knee. It didn't seem to bother him after the break as he hit the Vols' first 3-pointer of the game followed by a dunk to put Tennessee up 48-35, and a dunk by Renaldo Woolridge pushed the margin to 17 with 7:01 left.
Belmont and Tennessee have played each other twice.
The Volunteers' 77-68 victory over the Bruins on Dec. 20, 2004, was a one-possession game inside two minutes before Tennessee pulled away. The Bruins pulled within a point of Tennessee in the Dec. 20, 2008, meeting, but Bobby Maze hit a free throw to seal the 79-77 win while Belmont's Alex Renfroe missed two free throws that could have sent it to overtime.
"We survived some different things. I think tonight, we survived and we became a better basketball team because of some of the things we did well and some of the things that we didn't execute," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said.