NEW YORK (AP) – Despite being one of the elite teams of the last decade, Gonzaga has had to prove it still belongs each time a marquee player leaves.

Gonzaga now has its first big victory in the post-Adam Morrison era after an 82-74 victory over No. 2 North Carolina on Wednesday night in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off.

The Bulldogs of Gonzaga will face the Bulldogs of Butler on Friday night in the NIT championship game.

Butler has proven in its run to the finals that it isn’t intimidated by high-profile opponents. The Bulldogs knocked off Notre Dame, Indiana and finally No. 22 Tennessee.

“I think Gonzaga and Butler in the finals is good,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. “It’s not good for North Carolina right now, but I have no problems with that. I think it’s what makes our game the best game there is.”

It looked early on that Gonzaga was going to be overmatched by the Tar Heels, falling behind 10-0 in the first 2:24 of the game. But once Gonzaga got over its early jitters the Bulldogs got rolling.

“I think for a while, everyone was wondering if we were going to get shutout,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Just getting easy baskets, get your confidence going, gets their defense off you a bit.”

Gonzaga took a 40-37 halftime lead and extended it to 65-50 midway through the second half before North Carolina made a run. The Tar Heels came within 70-68 on Tyler Hansbrough’s dunk with 2:16 left, but once again the Zags didn’t wilt.

Guard Jeremy Pargo went right at North Carolina on the next possession, scoring a layup and drawing a foul to restore the five-point lead and quiet the pro-North Carolina crowd at Madison Square Garden.

“The opportunity presented itself to get to the basket and lay it in, so I just took advantage of it,” said Pargo.

Hansbrough had one of the worst games of his young career. The sophomore center only scored nine points and didn’t get many good looks at the basket.

“I didn’t play well,” the preseason All-America said. “It’s just one game you learn from it and move on.”

The Tar Heels will face the Vols, who lost to Butler 56-44 in the other semifinal Wednesday, in the consolation game.

“We’re going to be playing a Final Four caliber team on Friday,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “I just wanted to play them at 7pm instead of 4:30.”

Butler struggled early on against the Vols pressure defense. Trailing 6-3, Tennessee went on a 18-2 run to take a 21-8 lead. But the Vols couldn’t deliver the early knockout punch as leading scorer Chris Lofton got into foul trouble and suddenly Tennessee couldn’t take care of the basketball.

The Vols committed eight of their 14 first half turnovers over the next 5 minutes and Butler was able to close to 25-22 at the half, despite shooting just 25 percent from the field.

“We’ve done that all year, get a lead and then give it back with our turnovers,” Pearl said.

It only went from bad to worse for Tennessee, which shot only 10 percent (3-for-29) in the second half from the field.

“We were swimming uphill it seemed like offensively,” Pearl said. “Lost confidence in our continuity and didn’t react and respond to some of the things Butler was doing.”

Pearl was no stranger to Butler having coached for years in the Horizon League at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“We got beat by a good basketball team,” he said. “A team that beat Notre Dame and Indiana already.”

AP-ES-11-23-06 1447EST


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.