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Tennessee reaches Sweet 16 for first time in seven years

Mar 18, 2007 - 8:58 PM COLUMBUS, Ohio (Ticker) -- Coach Bruce Pearl is headed to the "Sweet 16" for the second time in three years. It has been a bit longer for Tennessee.

Chris Lofton scored 20 points, including six clutch free throws in the final 18 seconds, to lead fifth-seeded Tennessee to a 77-74 victory over fourth-seeded Virginia in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament.

The Volunteers (24-10) will face top-ranked Ohio State in a regional semifinal game at San Antonio on Thursday. Tennessee lost here, 68-66, to the Buckeyes in January.

Tennessee last reached the Sweet 16 in 2000, when Jerry Green was its coach. Pearl took Wisconsin-Green Bay to the 2005 regional semifinals and following that run was hired by Tennessee to revitalize a program that floundered under coach Buzz Peterson.

"Only 16 teams are left, but it's a place we had to take this program," said Pearl, who painted himself orange during a Tennessee women's game this season. "It's a step we had to make in order for us to consider ourselves a top-20 program."

Playing an up-tempo style under Pearl, the Volunteers made the NCAA Tournament last season but lost in the second round to Wichita State. This time, Tennessee matched a record for most points in an NCAA Tournament first-round game with Friday's 121-86 victory over Long Beach State.

The Volunteers didn't approach that total against Virginia (21-11), which tied for the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title. But Tennessee advanced, thanks to the backcourt of Lofton and JaJuan Smith, a major boost off the bench from forward Ryan Childress and clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch.

Smith scored 16 points and Childress added 10 points and eight rebounds, all in the second half.

"Fortunately, I was able to get to the free throw line and make those shots," said Lofton, who is an 80.5 percent shooter from the line. "There wasn't much room for me out there to get my shots from the perimeter. I had to take it to the basket more than normal."

Virginia's J.R. Reynolds scored 26 points but just four after halftime after suffering an ankle injury late in the first half.

With Reynolds hobbling, the Cavaliers shot just 33 percent (8-of-24) in the second half.

Yet Virginia still had a chance to force overtime, but a 3-pointer by Sean Singletary in the final seconds bounced off the front and back of the rim. Singletary finished with 19 points, but made just 4-of-14 shots.

The Cavaliers closed within 73-72 when Singletary connected on a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left.

Lofton, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, made two free throws with 10.2 seconds to play and Pearl did not allow Singletary to take a game-tying shot from the arc. Smith fouled Singletary just after the guard dribbled past midcourt.

"I just thought it was the right play knowing that we got Chris Lofton and he's going to make the free throws for us," Pearl said.

Pearl was right. After Singletary converted both of his free throws with 6.3 seconds left, Lofton was immediately fouled and made both of his shots from the line with 5.7 seconds remaining.

But Tennessee did not foul on the Cavaliers' final possession and Singletary nearly tied the game.

"We were supposed to foul on the last one," Pearl admitted. "For some reason, Jordan Howell didn't foul when he came off the screen."

Virginia was trying to reach the "Sweet 16" for the first time since 1995.

"We battled against a very talented team," Virginia coach Dave Leitao said. "They hit their free throws at the end. Give them credit."

Tennessee hit 5-of-7 shots from the arc and jumped to a 17-10 lead in the first 5 1/2 minutes.

But Reynolds scored 15 points, including three 3-pointers as the Cavaliers outscored Tennessee, 26-8, over the next 10 minutes.

Laurynas Mikalauskas made a pair of free throws with 4:30 left to cap the run, giving Virginia its biggest lead at 36-25.

Reynolds sat out the final minutes after he injured his right ankle driving to the basket and the Volunteers took advantage, closing the half with a 10-2 spurt as Lofton connected on a 3-pointer and Wayne Chism made a pair of free throws.

"I had a hart time getting lift on my jumper in the second half," Reynolds said. "It probably put too much pressure on Sean to make shots in the second half."

Tennessee took control with a 15-2 run early in the second half. Childress made a pair of 3-pointers, Smith completed a three-point play and Lofton capped the spurt with a pair of free throws with 13:06 left, giving Tennessee a 54-44 advantage.

"Coach always gives me the go-ahead to shoot 3-pointers," Childress said. "I heard him say 'Shoot, Shoot,' so I figured I would let it ride."

Virginia chipped away and pulled within 61-59 on a basket in the lane by Adrian Joseph with 6:51 left.

Smith banked in a 3-pointer at the top of the key with the shot clock running down, but Joseph connected from the arc with 2:50 left to again move Virginia within two.

Smith made another 3-pointer with 2:31 remaining and then drew a charge on Singletary.