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Dalton Knecht scores 24, Tennessee beats Creighton 82-75 to pull within a win of first Final Four

DETROIT (AP) — Dalton Knecht was all over the court, jumping into passing lanes for steals, shooting 3-pointers, driving and dishing to set up teammates for shots.

He wasn't alone.

Tennessee, with its relentless defense from logo to rim and unselfish offense, was too much for Creighton.

Knecht had 24 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals, and the Volunteers moved within a victory of their first trip to the Final Four, beating the Bluejays 82-75 in a Midwest Region semifinal on Friday night.

“He was trying to rebound the ball and was really engaged defensively and wasn’t thinking, score, score score,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.

Zakai Zeigler added 18 points and six assists and Josiah-Jordan James scored 17 points for the second-seeded Volunteers.

When Tennessee lost last year in the regional semifinals for the second straight season, Knecht was at Northern Colorado and Zeigler was out with a torn knee ligament.

Tennessee (27-8) matched the longest NCAA Tournament run in school history and hopes to get farther than the 2010 team that lost by one point to Michigan State in the Elite Eight.

"We're ready to go out there and hopefully make some history,” Knecht said.

Tennessee will face top-seeded Purdue, which beat Gonzaga earlier Friday night, on Sunday, with both schools seeking an elusive Final Four appearance.

The third-seeded Bluejays (25-10) reached the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years and fell a win short of equaling their first regional final appearance from last year.

“The further we get away from this game, the more I'll appreciate it,” said Ryan Kalkbrenner, who had 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.

Baylor Scheierman, a third-team All-America wing, scored 25 points. But some of his teammates struggled against Tennessee's strong, persistent defense.

“That’s what we do, and I think it separates us as a team,” guard Jahmai Mashack said. “To sustain that as long as we do, that wears on teams.”

Tennessee went on a breathtaking 18-0 run early in the second half — taking a 55-39 lead — that forced Creighton coach Greg McDermott to call two timeouts because he didn’t want to wait for a TV stoppage to stem the tide.

Scheierman made a 3-pointer to end the drought and later had a three-point play during a 9-0 run that pulled the Bluejays within three points with 6:04 left.

McDermott said he played a triangle-and-2 defense for the first time this season, fueling his team's rally to make it close.

“It's called desperation,” he said.

Knecht made a pair of 3-pointers that restored six-point leads and Zeigler set up Tobe Awaka for a three-point play that put the Vols ahead 71-64 with 1:39 to go.

During the pivotal burst early in the second half, Knecht was at his best.

The 6-foot-6 wing, who previously played at Northern Colorado and Northeastern Junior College, became the first former junior college player to earn All-America recognition since Larry Johnson in 1991.

“When I transferred here, this is what they said I was going to do and this is what we were going to do," he said. "We knew it could be something special.”

Knecht had 10 points in a closely contested first half with eight lead changes, three ties and neither team going ahead by more than four points.

The Vols were pesky on defense, playing chest-to-chest 40 feet from the basket, and forced a team that averages 10-plus turnovers to lose possession four times in the opening five minutes.

Perhaps fittingly, both teams didn’t get much breathing room on the court or scoreboard.

BIG PICTURE

Creighton: A year after a heartbreaking, one-point loss to San Diego State prevented the program from its first Final Four, the Bluejays will have another long offseason to wonder what they could have done to get over the hump.

Tennessee: Barnes had his team prepared and made sound adjustments, but the veteran coach needs another win to quiet the critics of his postseason record. He acknowledged he couldn't enjoy the latest win.

“I'm not sure I'll be able to do that until it's finished,” Barnes said.

UP NEXT

The Vols will play in front of a pro-Boilermakers crowd when Purdue tries to make its first Final Four since 1980.

Purdue beat Tennessee 71-67 in November at the Maui Invitational in Honolulu.

“They're much better and I'd like to think we are too,” Barnes said.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness