Graves, Butler reach NIT final with upset of TennesseeNov 23, 2006 - 2:40 AM NEW YORK (Ticker) -- Surprisingly, it was Tennessee that wilted under the bright lights of the big city, not upstart Butler.
A.J. Graves and Julian Betko scored 15 points apiece as the Bulldogs took advantage of a woefully shooting effort by No. 21 Tennessee for a 56-44 victory in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off.
Butler (5-0) advanced to Friday's final against No. 23 Gonzaga, which upset second-ranked North Carolina, 82-74, in the second semifinal.
Despite appearing at Madison Square Garden for the first time in 47 years, Butler was its usual self as it once again rallied from a sizeable deficit in this tournament.
After coming back from second-half deficits of six against Notre Dame and 12 against Indiana to set up the rare trip to Manhattan, the Bulldogs overcame an early 13-point deficit against the Volunteers with a 21-4 run that spanned halftime.
"It was difficult beating theses teams from the big conferences, but I try not to focus on it that way," Butler coach Todd Lickliter said. "We try not to look at it that way, we look at the team and the players we're focusing on."
Graves had 11 points during the burst, including his third 3-pointer that gave Butler the lead at 27-25 with 17:39 remaining.
That advantage grew as Tennessee (4-1) shot a miserable 10 percent (3-of-29) from the field in the second half.
"We really struggled," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "We had a lot of good looks from the (field), but Butler's defense of playing physical and banging after shots was the difference. I give Butler credit for their defense and our poor execution tonight was what kept out of the game."
The poor offensive showing did not appear to be in the cards for the Vols early, as they went on a 18-2 spurt, grabbing a 21-8 lead on a layup by Tony Passley with 7:54 left in the first half.
However, it was Butler that controlled the tempo thereafter, forcing Tennessee into situations that its young players were uncomfortable with.
"We're a young basketball team and we played like it tonight," Pearl said. "This game was great lesson and what I told the guys is it's a 40-minute game and you have to persevere," Lickliter said. "We just played tough down the stretch and our guards worked (well) on attacking and making their guards play defense. That kept them away from their offensive game."
Betko, who had 13 points in the second half, hit three straight 3-pointers and scored 11 straight Butler points, making it 46-38 with 8:09 to play.
"We had some conversations during the second half and looks like he was listening as he shot and attacked the basket and kept us in the game," Lickliter said.
JaJuan Smith scored 16 points for the Vols, who were playing here for the first time since the 1985 postseason NIT Tournament. Tennessee will play North Carolina.
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