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Late spurt lifts Tennessee over Mississippi State

Jan 8, 2007 - 2:25 AM KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (Ticker) -- A late rally helped Tennessee start a successful defense of its division title.

Chris Lofton scored 21 points as the 25th-ranked Volunteers defeated Mississippi State, 92-84, in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.

The defending SEC East champions, Tennessee (13-2, 1-0 SEC East) rallied from a five-point deficit midway through the second half to win their ninth straight game.

"Mississippi State is much improved and shooting far better than they did last year," Vols coach Bruce Pearl said. "So we are pleased to come back against them and win the game. We showed a lot of heart and character this afternoon. We are extremely challenged defensively, and we need to make their catches more difficult."

A 7-0 run capped by a 3-pointer from Ryan Childress put the Volunteers ahead to stay, 77-73, with 5:45 left as they sent the Bulldogs (9-5, 0-1 West) to their third straight defeat and ninth consecutive conference road loss.

Although Mississippi State twice got within three points, Lofton score nine of Tennessee's next 11 points, offsetting six from Jamont Gordon in that span.

"Chris Lofton is a great player," Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said. "He is as good of a shooting guard as there is in the country. We held him to six field goals, only one 3-pointer. We guarded him about as well as you could guard him. The difference in the game was that last six minutes. That was it."

"Chris Lofton wanted the ball during the second half," Pearl said. "He got some difficult two-point baskets. Mississippi State could not guard him, just like we could not guard Jamont Gordon. Gordon is as strong as any guard we will play against."

Freshman Duke Crews scored 18 points, including two free throws with 27 seconds left, for Tennessee, which shot 55 percent (31-of-56) from the floor and hit 10 3-pointers. Ramar Smith added 13 points and JaJuan Smith 12, including four from the arc.

Lofton hit 8-of-10 free throws as the Vols outscored the Bulldogs, 20-10, at the stripe with each team missing nine shots.

"There are a lot of huge plays in every game," Stansbury said. "But to come in here - we outrebound them, take care of the ball, we do not have a turnover against the press, we have 21 assists, shoot (nearly) 60 percent. The difference in the basketball game was the free-throw line. We did not make enough and did not get there enough."

Gordon scored 15 of his 25 points in the second half and grabbed 11 boards for Mississippi State, which wiped out a 10-point second-half deficit with a 21-6 run to go ahead, 65-60, with 10:25 to go.

Reginald Delk scored 18 points and Charles Rhodes had 18 and 10 rebounds for the Bulldogs, who also shot 55 percent (32-of-58) and nailed 10 shots from the arc.

"Mississippi State will beat some people this year," Pearl said. "Charles Rhodes is a fine player, and we will be seeing people like him every night."