NEW YORK -- Scotty Hopson and his teammates have been focused on basketball the past few weeks, even though most of the publicity surrounding the Tennessee men's program has had little to do with what's been happening on the court.
"We're student-athletes," Hopson said, "and we'll stick to doing that."
Hopson had 18 points and 11 rebounds Wednesday night, and the No. 24 Volunteers rallied behind embattled coach Bruce Pearl to beat Virginia Commonwealth 77-72 in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off. They'll play No. 7 Villanova, which beat UCLA 82-70, for the title Friday night.
The win was still a relief for Tennessee, playing its first game since Pearl was punished by SEC commissioner Mike Slive last week for violating NCAA recruiting rules and misleading investigators.
Pearl will miss the Vols' first eight SEC games beginning Jan. 8, along with school-imposed sanctions that included docking the coach's pay $1.5 million over five years and banning him from off-campus recruiting for a year. The NCAA is expected to present Tennessee with allegations stemming from its own investigation in December and could hand down additional sanctions.
"You probably don't believe this, but these guys are so insulated about what's going on off the floor," Pearl said of the potential off-the-court distraction. "I'm so on them about basketball and preparation, there's no time for that. We have work to do to be a good basketball team."
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 quietly added 16 points and Jamie Skeen finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds.
"We had a week to get ready for them. They were a fun team to get ready before because they do such great things in transition," Pearl said. "They didn't have a big post-up attack and I think Skeen had a hard time finishing over the top of Tobias and Brian and some of the size."
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.
Rodriguez was bothered by an ankle injury that he aggravated during the game.
"He's been banged up for the last two, three weeks, and really hasn't been able to practice at full strength," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "It hasn't hurt us in games, he's been phenomenal in games, but he was less than 100 percent coming in and after turning his ankle, well, you saw him."
The Rams struggled from the field from the start as Tennessee built a 25-18 lead with 6:29 remaining in the first half. 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 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.
That all changed in the second half, and when its cold shooting remained the same, Virginia Commonwealth had a hard time keeping up with the Vols.
"I think every team we try to compete," Rozell said, "and that's just what we did."
Tennessee finally began to get comfortable when 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 ran their offense through Hopson and rattled off six of their own.
The Rams (3-1) twice got within two in the final 6 minutes, but couldn't come all the way back.
"I've had a few games before this where I didn't feel like I played up to my potential, I didn't play as well as my coach and teammates expected," Hopson said. "Practicing good habits leads over to the game, and that's what I did today."