NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl wants his 25th-ranked Volunteers to pressure and chase opponents into sloppy mistakes. He found out Monday night that can be contagious for his young squad.
Chris Lofton scored 30 points, and Tennessee survived a clumsy game to beat Fordham 78-71 in the opening round of the NIT Season Tip-off.
Not exactly what Pearl wanted to see.
“I’m very happy with the win. We beat a good basketball team,” Pearl said. “The quality of play may have set the game back a few years. I don’t think Naismith intended for us to turn the ball over 55 times.”
The Vols (2-0) will play UNC Wilmington, an 88-83 winner over Belmont, in the second round of the Nashville Regional on Tuesday night for the chance to advance to the semifinals in New York. Fordham (1-1) will play Belmont in the consolation game.
Tennessee is lucky Fordham had as much trouble holding onto the ball as the Vols did. The Vols had as many turnovers (23) with more than 11 minutes left in the second half as they ever had last season, Pearl’s first, and finished with 26.
“It’s so early on in the season, and I think all the teams are rusty,” Fordham coach Dereck Whittenburg said.
The teams also combined for 51 personal fouls in a game that finished with one player fouling out and 11 more in serious danger of doing just that.
Lofton was one of those, picking up his third foul late in the first half after he already had scored 19 points. And the junior guard was the one player Whittenburg tried most to stop.
“We let the one guy we tried to not let beat us beat us,” Whittenburg said.
Lofton had only six points in Tennessee’s season-opening win. He finished 9-of-16 from the field, including 5-of-10 on 3s, and was 7-of-8 at the free throw line.
“I’m just trying to do whatever the team needed me to do. The main focus is trying to get the win,” Lofton said. “It wasn’t really pretty tonight. The bottom line is we won. We’re moving on.”
Tennessee had what little homecourt advantage was available in an arena 190 miles west of its campus with most of the crowd of 3,186 wearing orange. It was a welcome sight to a team with only two starters back from last season’s NCAA tournament squad and two freshmen starting.
“It was good to see all those orange shirts out there I’ll tell you that,” Vols freshman Duke Crews said.
Fordham tried to play its way back into the game midway through the second half.
The Vols led by as many as 14 points with 7:51 left. Fordham pulled within 75-71 on a dunk by Marcus Stout with 1:31 left to cap a 7-0 spurt, but Tennessee went 3-of-4 from the free throw line in the final minute.
“Nobody expected us to come here and do anything,” Stout said. “I am just happy with my team that we fought.”
Crews added 11 points for Tennessee.
Brenton Butler led Fordham, which had 29 turnovers, with 20 points, and Stout finished with 16.
Whittenburg liked the uptempo pace as the Vols tried to push the ball and pressure the Rams on defense. He credited Tennessee with denying the Rams on their inbound passes but said his players mishandled the ball.
“Once we got open, we just made careless passes,” he said.
Tennessee led by 12 points three times in the first half—the last 40-28 at halftime. But the Vols blew the first lead as Fordham went up 26-25 on a jumper by Butler with 7:04 to go.
Each team was sloppy from the start and combined for 38 turnovers and 24 personal fouls in the first half. Lofton picked up his third foul late in the first half after scoring 19 points, including all 12 in a 12-3 run in pushing the Vols’ lead to 39-27 with 2:13 to go.
Stout lost a ball heading toward his own basket in the opening minutes. Tennessee was called for charges on consecutive possessions, the first by Lofton for his second foul.