Lofton lights up EKU

With his minutes way up (18) and his production way down (0 of 4 from the field), Chris Lofton looked to Tennessee's bench a lot during the first half of Friday's game with Eastern Kentucky. He kept expecting to be pulled from the lineup. When it didn't happen, he could imagine only one explanation.

"I thought they (coaches) had forgot about me," he said.

If so, they were about to remember him.

When the visiting Colonels whittled Tennessee's lead to 46-35 four minutes into the second half, Lofton went off like a bottle rocket. He scored on a slashing drive, was fouled, then added the free throw. Moments later he nailed a 3-pointer that widened the gap to 54-35. An acrobatic 3 made it 59-38. Two more treys 39 seconds apart made it 67-44 with 10:58 to play.

During that mind-boggling five-minute span Lofton scored 15 points in a 21-9 spurt that expanded Tennessee's lead from 11 to 23. The Vols coasted home from there, eventually winning 92-58.

"I got an open look and I started knocking ‘em down," Lofton said of his one-man explosion. "I just started shooting."

Actually, none of the 3-pointers came on open looks. All were made in spite of considerable defensive pressure. That's what made his performance so spectacular.

"Chris don't surprise me no more," Vol teammate Major Wingate said, grinning broadly. "I'm waiting to see something miraculous, and I'm pretty sure he'll toss something up. He does something great every day, so I'm getting used to it."

Conversely, first-year Vol coach Bruce Pearl is still adjusting to Lofton's streaky shooting.

"I gave him a hard time at halftime," the coach recalled. "I said, ‘Can't you make easy shots? Does every shot have to be a tough 3?' We get him open 3s and he can't make ‘em, yet he makes all of those tough fall-aways."

Eastern elected to play a variety of zone defenses, and Tennessee shredded them with surgical precision.

"Most people, against zone, everything is perimeter," Pearl said. "We had a nice balance tonight, inside and outside."

Indeed. The 6-foot-10 Wingate sank 6 of 8 floor shots and led the scoring parade with 18 points. Lofton chipped in 17. Guard C.J. Watson and forward Andre Patterson hit 5 of 7 shots each en route to 12 and 10 points, respectively. Dane Bradshaw contributed game highs in rebounds (7) and steals (5). Watson dished out 6 assists and Stanley Asumnu, limited to 16 minutes by foul trouble, added 5.

Wingate said the Vols, now 3-0, handle zones differently than they did a year ago.

"We're just more aggressive," he said. "We don't back up. We keep attacking them, instead of them pushing us out and making us use time off the clock and panic. We're always on the attack, no matter what. Coach Pearl wants to be the aggressor all the time."

Pearl got his wish Friday night. The Vols played by far their most complete game to date, outshooting Eastern 54.8 percent to 44.2 percent from the floor and forcing 25 turnovers. Tennessee also hit 78.9 percent from the foul line (15 of 19), won the backboards 32-29 and registered nearly twice as many assists (21) as turnovers (13).

Another bright spot was the defensive work of Watson, Lofton and reserve guard JaJuan Smith on EKU's Matt Witt, limiting him to 2-of-8 shooting and 6 points, 11 below his season's average.

Pearl summed up the evening in six words:

"This is the best we've played."

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