Lofton leads the way

Tennessee's basketball team lost a lot of close games last season because the Vols lacked a go-to guy who would make clutch shots in the closing minutes. Based on Wednesday night's game with Murray State in Nashville, that void is now filled.

With the Racers leading 47-46 and less than 8 minutes to play, sophomore guard Chris Lofton took the Vols on his shoulders and carried them to victory. He single-handedly outscored Murray 12-1 over a five-minutes span that saw the Vols turn the one-point deficit into a 10-point lead (58-48). Tennessee stretched the margin to 14 before ultimately winning 64-53.

The Vols, now 4-0, placed four players in double figures. Andre Patterson contributed 11 points and a career-high 14 rebounds. C.J. Watson added 11 points and 7 assists. Major Wingate chipped in 10 points. Still, Lofton (18 points)clearly was the straw that stirred the drink on this night.

Tennessee shot a frigid 27 percent (10 of 36) from the floor in the first half, including 18 percent (2 of 11) from 3-point range. Lofton (1 of 7) and backcourt mate Watson (0 of 3) were a combined 1 of 10. As a result, Murray took a 32-26 lead to the locker room.

When Shawn Witherspoon nailed a 3 to open the second half, the Racers led by nine (35-26). It was gut check time for the Vols. They passed.

"They never showed the faces I saw against Louisiana-Lafayette; they were only down one then but, oh, they were scared," head coach Bruce Pearl recalled on his post-game radio show. "They weren't scared tonight."

Watson, now in his fourth year as the starting point guard, certainly wasn't scared. He scored on a 3 to open the comeback, then added a drive and two free throws as Tennessee clawed back to tie the score at 42-all. Moments later, with Murray up 47-46, Lofton "took the game over" as Pearl put it.

Lofton drained a 3-pointer to give Tennessee the lead for good at 49-47. Another 3 made it 52-48. When Murray shifted its emphasis to guarding the 3-point arc, Lofton began driving to the basket. A pull-up 10-footer made it 54-48. A nifty drive widened the gap to 56-48 and a spectacular reverse layup padded the lead to 58-48 with just over 2 ½ minutes to play.

"As soon as Lofton hit a shot, we just kept going to him," Pearl said. "It was like, ‘OK, what can I do next to get him a screen, get him a handoff, get something to get him going?' We went to the hot hand."

Lofton's hand was never hotter than in the final 20 minutes Wednesday night. He hit 6 of 8 second-half shots in sparking a rally that saw the Vols outscore the Racers 38-15 during an incredible 18-minute stretch that turned the 35-26 deficit into a 64-50 lead.

Murray State's Trey Pearson, an Ole Miss transfer who was the preseason pick for Ohio Valley Conference player of the year, hit just 3 of 11 shots and finished with 8 points, less than half of his 19.5 ppg average. Subs Issian Redding (14 points) and Tyler Holloway (11) wound up leading the Racers in scoring.

Despite a noticeable lack of depth, Tennessee thoroughly outplayed Murray State during the game's final 10 minutes. The Vols committed just nine turnovers while forcing 17. They won the backboards 48-38 and limited Murray to 27-percent field goal shooting (8 of 28) in the second half. They almost seemed to get stronger as the game wore on.

"I thought our kids' conditioning really showed," Pearl said. "The two teams played awfully hard but we were the fresher team at the end. They were popped (fatigued). I'm used to seeing that but not with just seven or eight guys, so my hat's off to our kids for toughing it out."

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