KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Jarnell Stokes scored 13 points and top-seeded Tennessee beat Savannah State 65-51 in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night.
Trae Golden had 11 points, and Yemi Makanjuola and Josh Richardson both added 10 for the Volunteers (19-14), who nearly blew a 17-point lead. Tennessee, which has won 13 of its last 14 home games, will next host No. 4 seed Middle Tennessee, which beat fifth-seeded Marshall 86-78.
"For me, I just like Ws," Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I'd rather gather and regroup after an ugly win because it's still a win, and you keep moving."
Savannah State missed its first seven shots from the floor as Tennessee jumped out to a 10-0 lead. The Tigers continued to struggle from the field and missed their first five free throws, and the Vols expanded their lead to 26-9 with 7:16 left in the first half.
That's when Tennessee got sloppy with the ball, and Savannah State took advantage. The Tigers scored eight points off seven turnovers by the Vols and used an 11-1 run to pull within 27-20 with 2:48 before halftime.
Savannah State continued to use pressing defense to get stops and turnovers and pulled within 37-35 with 13:12 to play.
"Anytime we play defense like that, we have good outcomes," Tigers guard Preston Blackman said. "I can't say it was offense. Defense led to good offense."
Makanjuola, who made his first career start in place of Jeronne Maymon, blocked a shot by Joshua Montgomery, grabbed the rebound and dished the ball to Golden, who hit a layup at the other end, sparking an 8-0 run. Maymon sat out to rest a bruised knee and is day-to-day, Martin said.
"When I found out I was starting, then I got a little bit nervous," Makanjuola said. "You can probably tell I was a little nervous the first 2 minutes."
The Vols hit 12 of 18 free throws in the second half to maintain control.
Rashad Hasaan had 20 points and 13 rebounds, and Blackman scored 14 for the eighth-seeded Tigers (21-12), who won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season title and wrapped up their first season as full-fledged Division I members.
"When you put yourself in the hole 15, 17 points, you have to burn a lot of energy to get back to where we were," Savannah State coach Horace Broadnax said.