"Coach preaches to us that every night it's going to be someone different step up to the plate," Smith said. "Right now we're just trying to get more people to step up to the plate."
Smith and Asumnu must have been batting third and cleanup, respectively, on this night. Both stepped to the plate and both delivered.
Smith, a 6-2 guard who was shooting just 36 percent from the floor coming in, picked his shots wisely and drained six of nine. He chipped in five assists and two steals. Best of all, the former wild child played 25 minutes without a turnover … surely a lifetime best.
Asumnu was just as productive. He sank 7 of 12 from the field, including a spectacular dunk on an alley oop from – who else – JaJuan Smith. Asumnu also contributed 3 assists, a blocked shot and a steal.
The Vols also got a big effort from Andre Patterson. Starting at center in place of 6-10 Major Wingate (who was benched for returning late from the Christmas break), Patterson speared 14 rebounds, matching his career high. He also registered 3 assists and 3 steals.
Tennessee did a great job spreading the floor, which opened driving lanes for Smith and Asumnu. It also opened passing lanes to Wingate, who scored eight points on four dunks. As a result, the Vols hit a sizzling 55.4 percent from the field, dished out 28 assists and committed just nine turnovers.
"It gives a lot of people opportunities to make plays," Asumnu of the Vols' offensive spacing. "They were defending way out high, and we were able to drive by and make plays, whether it was to kick (to another player) or finish. We played together, and everybody did a great job."
Tennessee's defense was just as sterling as the offense. After allowing Oklahoma State to shoot 63 percent in an 89-73 Game 7 loss, the Vols limited A&M to 38.7 percent in Game 8. Star guard Obie Trotter sank just 3 of 13 from the floor. The only Bulldog to enjoy success against Tennessee was Joe Martin, who scored a game-high 27 points.
The Vols led by just six points (32-26) with 3½ minutes left in the first half, then Lofton went to work. The 6-2 sharpshooter drained three consecutive 3s, scored on an acrobatic inside move, then assisted Asumnu for a basket that closed a 13-4 run and boosted the lead to 45-30.
Tennessee outscored A&M 22-6 to open the second half, turning a 45-32 cushion into a 67-38 bulge. The lead peaked at 30 points (75-45) with 9:31 to go. The Bulldogs (2-4) whittled the deficit to 20 with a 16-6 run but Tennessee immediately rallied and put the game away.
"You just can't let any one of them (potential wins) get away from you," Pearl said. "This team has got to continue to carve out its identity. That identity is playing with that kind of passion, and doing it every night."