for this game

Lofton, Tennessee avoid upset in SEC quarters

Mar 14, 2008 - 9:54 PM By Phil Foley PA SportsTicker Contributing Editor

ATLANTA (Ticker) -- Chris Lofton and Tennessee got off to a rocky start in their pursuit of the Southeastern Conference tournament crown. But Lofton made the big shot when it mattered most.

Lofton shook off a miserable shooting performance by hitting a game-winning 3-pointer with 12 seconds remaining as the fourth-ranked Volunteers escaped with an 89-87 victory over South Carolina in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.

Wayne Chism scored a career-high 23 points, JaJuan Smith poured in 19 and Tyler Smith added 13 for Tennessee (29-3), which is seeking its first SEC tournament title since 1979.

"We're used to packing our bags right now," said Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, whose club had lost three straight SEC tournament games dating to 2005. "I'm real happy for our fans that we're still in this tournament. We'll work and they get to celebrate a little bit."

Devan Downey poured in 26 points and Zam Fredrick added 24 for the Gamecocks (14-18), who fell two points shy of pulling off a stunning upset.

"I could be happier if we had won, but I couldn't be prouder," said South Carolina coach Dave Odom, who likely coached his last game for the Gamecocks. "It was a very proud moment for me, our staff, our university and our team."

Tennessee's leading scorer, Lofton struggled all afternoon, connecting on just 3-of-11 shots from the field and making 1-of-9 attempts from the arc entering the game's final minute.

But with the game on the line, Lofton had that familiar look of determination in his eyes. Pearl drew up a play designed for either Lofton up top or JaJuan Smith down low.

"With Chris, when he has that look in his eyes, we know to get him the ball," JaJuan Smith said. "He had that look when coach drew up that play."

Not surprisingly, Lofton got open and made the last shot.

"It really didn't have anything to do with how he was shooting, going into that last shot," Pearl said. "Chris was going to get the ball. JaJuan was the first option and he was probably very open, but Chris was going to get that touch."

After setting a screen for JaJuan Smith, the Volunteer senior wiggled free behind a double-screen near the top of the key. Tyler Smith dished the ball to Lofton, who drained a 3-pointer to give Tennessee an 89-87 lead.

"It was just a simple back screen for JaJuan," Lofton said. "Wayne got me a good screen and I got open and I knocked it down."

"We all know that Chris can shoot the ball from anywhere," Fredrick said. "He can beat you when you let him set his feet and get an open look."

Downey had a wide-open look at a 3-pointer from the right arc, but the ball bounced off the rim and out of bounds with 1.1 seconds remaining.

"That shot felt good," Downey said. "I knew we were in the double bonus, but I wanted to go for the kill. If I had to do it again, I would have taken the same shot."

South Carolina inbounded the ball to Dominique Archie, but he could not get a shot off as time expired. The throngs of orange-clad Tennessee fans who packed the Georgia Dome could finally celebrate.

Archie improbably put the Gamecocks ahead, 85-84, with a putback dunk with 50 seconds remaining before Tyler Smith followed with a layup 12 seconds later.

Archie followed with a layup in the low post to put South Carolina ahead, 87-86, with 21 seconds left before Tennessee called timeout to set up Lofton's heroics.

The Volunteers, who shot a blistering 73 percent from the field (19-for-26) in the second half, will face Arkansas in Saturday's semifinals.

Early on, this one looked like it was going to be a repeat of the last two matchups between the two clubs, in which the Volunteers manhandled the Gamecocks by an average of 28.5 points.

Chism and JaJuan Smith opened the afternoon with nine straight points, including a 3-pointer by JaJuan Smith to give Tennessee a 9-0 lead at 17:18 of the first half.

The Vols extended the edge to 19-8 on J.P. Prince's three-point play at 12:43 of the period before South Carolina decided to try to hold off coach Odom's retirement for at least one more day.

Powered by four 3-pointers from Fredrick, the Gamecocks pecked their way back into the contest by tallying 32 of the next 53 points to take a 40-39 lead.

Fredrick was solid in the first half, scoring a game-high 18 points on 4-for-7 shooting from the arc. He also drained six free throws.