Lofton's late surge lifts Vols over Dawgs

ATHENS – For 34 minutes Saturday, Georgia kept Chris Lofton in check and the NCAA Tournament in sight.

Then, in the span of one minute and 44 seconds, the Tennessee guard probably punched the Bulldogs' ticket to the NIT. Lofton scored eight points in that stretch to boost the Volunteers to a 71-65 victory in front of 10,230 fans in Stegeman Coliseum.

With 5:35 left, Lofton had two points and Georgia led 54-52. However, the SEC's leading scorer buried a long, leaning 3-pointer over Levi Stukes at that point to give the Volunteers a 55-54 lead. He hit another fall-away three one minute later to erase another Bulldog lead and finished with a steal and layup that put the Volunteers ahead 60-56 with 3:51 left.

Georgia never got within a single possession again.

"I've said this before many times, and we witnessed it again tonight, he has won so many games single-handedly for them," Georgia head coach Dennis Felton said. "He does it with such regularly. We defended him pretty good obviously, but it seemed like every shot he hit was the dagger."

Lofton finished with 14 points, six points below his average.

"When he hit that first shot, I ran down the court and said, ‘That was a tough shot,'" Stukes said. "I was right there in his face and he was pretty deep. That's the type of guy he is; that's the type of player he is."

The Bulldogs lost for the third time in four games and fell to 17-12 overall and 8-8 in the SEC. They now have to win, or at least advance deeply into, this week's SEC Tournament to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Georgia will be the No. 5 seed in the tournament and play the No. 4 seed from the Western Division, either Arkansas or Auburn, on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the Georgia Dome. SEC East winner Florida waits for the winner of that game.

"We have to go into it with the mind-set that we have to win the tournament," said Takais Brown, who had 13 points and 10 rebounds for his third double-double of the season. "If we don't win it, and we still somehow get in, that would be great but as of now we feel we probably have to win the tournament."

Tennessee (22-9, 10-6) locked up the third seed in the East.

Stukes returned from a one-game suspension just in time for his Senior Day but had little impact on the game, missing eight of his 10 shots and finishing with eight points and three turnovers. The Bulldogs' other senior, forward Steve Newman, finished with nine points and five turnovers.

Georgia shot 24 percent (5-of-21) from behind the 3-point line. It was the sixth time in the SEC season it has been below 30 percent from long range. The Bulldogs were 16-of-25 from the free throw line.

"We certainly had our chances," Felton said. "We missed shots right at the rim; we missed foul shots, and we missed open jump shots. We had some very, very makeable shots that we didn't convert that I felt like could have made it a double-digit win."

Tennessee shot 42.6 percent from the floor and 42.3 from 3-point range and was led by JaJuan Smith's 19 points.

"It was Senior Night for Georgia so we knew that it was going to be intense," Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl said. "We didn't have as much to play for as them. We were playing for the second-best record in the SEC, and we came out of the gates and wanted that prize."

The Bulldogs were formidable at home this season but opened the game in lackluster fashion, falling behind by as many as 12. However, Georgia whittled away at the lead until finally going ahead 37-34 on a 3-pointer by Billy Humphrey with 17:16 left.

The second half featured four lead changes and four ties.

"At first it was not finishing games, and now it's not getting off to good starts," Brown said. "That came back and bit us. We couldn't get over the hump when it mattered."

The Bulldogs finished the regular season 13-4 (6-2 SEC) in Stegeman Coliseum, where they could return for an NIT game later this month. The building didn't feel much like home Saturday evening, when "It's great to be a Volunteer," was the loudest chant and more than 50 Tennessee fans stuck around for Pearl's post-game show.

"It felt like we were at home. There was just a little more red and black," Smith said. "We had a lot of orange here, and when you wanted to take plays off the fans just kept pumping us up. They meant a lot for us."

NOTE: Sophomore Albert Jackson, who is averaging 2.2 points and 2.2 rebounds, will miss the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury. He's expected to have surgery later this month. Center Dave Bliss played just two minutes Saturday due to a hip injury but should be ready to go Thursday, Felton said.

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