James scored 18 points and Lamonte Ulmer added 13, including a big basket in the final seconds, to lead Rhode Island past Virginia Tech 79-72 in an NIT quarterfinal Wednesday night.
The second-seeded Rams (26-9) advanced to the NIT semifinals for the first time since 1946. They'll play 2009 national champion North Carolina on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
"I'm just so excited for our players and everyone involved," Rhode Island coach Jim Baron said. "You know, you're right there on the bubble of the NCAA tournament and you beat a Big Ten team and a Western Athletic Conference and then an ACC team. Our kids showed a tremendous amount of will power to sustain and I'm really happy for them. This is a great win for us and our program."
The Rams beat Northwestern in the first round and Nevada in the second round.
No. 1 seed Virginia Tech (25-9) led 60-48 following Malcolm Delaney's two free throws with 14:43 left that capped an 18-8 run to start the second half. But the Rams answered with a 13-0 spurt and took a 61-60 lead with 11:05 remaining on a basket by Ulmer.
"We've had different guys step up on different nights and help us win," Hokies coach Seth Greenberg said. "But we just didn't do those things that we normally do. I don't know if it was the stage or if it was pressure. There are so many factors that go into it. I'm just real disappointed."
Rhode Island took the lead for good at 73-71 on a jumper by Keith Cothran with 2 minutes left. Virginia Tech had a chance to tie, but James got a piece of J.T. Thompson's layup attempt with 46 seconds to go and grabbed the rebound.
The Rams then spread the court, and with the shot clock running down, Ulmer rebounded his own miss and laid it in with 10.6 seconds remaining.
"We were isolating and he was just real aggressive," Baron said. "He attacked the bucket, and the funny part about it was I told the guys in practice that they were going to have to use the rim as a protector by going up and under. Sure enough, Lamonte made a great play by going up and under."
Delaney hit one of two free throws with 6.9 seconds left to cut it to 75-72. But the Rams made all four of their free throws the rest of the way to seal it.
James, who scored a career-high 34 points in Rhode Island's second-round win over Nevada, shot 7 of 18 from the floor. He also blocked four shots and grabbed six rebounds.
Delaney had 24 points for the Hokies, who lost in the NIT quarterfinals for the third straight year. Dorenzo Hudson added 19.
The Hokies, who fell one victory short of setting the school's single-season record, shot better from the floor than the Rams, hitting 48.1 percent (26 of 54) compared to 46.7 percent (28 of 60). But Tech made only two of its final 17 shots.
"We weren't as poised as well as we had been down the stretch," Greenberg said. "As well as we executed the other night [against Connecticut], we didn't down the stretch tonight."