NEW YORK (AP)—Butler coach Todd Lickliter was hoping his team could withstand Tennessee’s pressure defense and not turn over the basketball.
The Bulldogs did just that and also held the No. 22 Vols to 25 percent shooting from the field in a 56-44 victory Wednesday night in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals.
“I thought we had to have under 15 turnovers and we’d be in great shape,” Lickliter said.
Butler committed just 16 turnovers against Tennessee’s fullcourt pressure.
The Bulldogs (5-0) advanced to the championship game Friday night against Gonzaga, an 82-74 winner over No. 2 North Carolina in the second semifinal at Madison Square Garden. The Volunteers (4-1) will play the Tar Heels in the consolation game.
Tennessee, which was averaging 82.5 points before the loss, was 3-for-29 from the floor in the second half.
“We were swimming uphill offensively,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “We really struggled and had a lot of good looks, we just didn’t finish. You have to give Butler credit.”
Julian Betko scored 11 of his career-high 15 points in a decisive second-half run to give Butler the win.
“Today was a great game,” Betko said. We’re just going to try and compete on Friday.”
With Butler leading by one, Betko hit three 3-pointers and a layup to give the Bulldogs a 46-38 lead with 7:49 left in the game.
“He can really shoot the basketball,” Lickliter said of his senior forward from Slovakia. “I think you’re seeing some of the things he can do.”
A.J. Graves added 15 points for Butler, which earned a trip to New York with victories over Notre Dame and Indiana in the Midwest Region.
JaJuan Smith scored 16 points to lead Tennessee, which advanced to the semifinals by winning the South Region over Fordham and UNC Wilmington.
Trailing 25-22 at the half, the Bulldogs scored the first seven points of the second half to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Mike Green, Butler’s second leading scorer, was just 1-for-12 from the field.
“Mike struggled from the field, but he is a great player and helped us in other areas,” Lickliter said.
The Vols had a chance to break the game open in the first half, but couldn’t take care of the basketball, turning it over 14 times before the break.
“We’ve done that all year,” Pearl said. “We were sloppy and just didn’t execute.”
Tennessee was trailing 6-3 early on before going on an 18-2 run over the next 9:44 to take a 21-8 advantage. Smith hit two 3-pointers during the spurt for the Vols.
The Bulldogs finally ended their drought with a 3-pointer by A.J. Graves at 6:55. The shot ignited a 14-4 run by Butler to close the half, including eight points by Graves. Tennessee turned the ball over eight times during the spurt as leading scorer Chris Lofton got into foul trouble.
The Bulldogs’ last win over a ranked opponent was a victory over No. 14 Louisville in the second round of the 2003 NCAA tournament.
Butler won the only other meeting with Tennessee, beating the Vols 81-66 in 1958.