Vols shock Gators

When C.J. Watson fouled out with 2:53 left in Saturday night's game against No. 2 Florida, the Tennessee Vols appeared to be in serious trouble. After all, Watson is the team's most experienced player, its best ball-handler, its best clutch scorer and its best free-throw shooter.

Magnifying Watson's loss was the fact his replacement, Jordan Howell, averages just 2 points and 8 minutes per game. So, in spite of a 71-70 Tennessee lead, the odds clearly favored the Gators. Even the Vols themselves were a little concerned.

"When C.J. went out, I went ‘Oh, my!'" guard Chris Lofton admitted. "He's our best ball-handler and our best point guard. But Jordan stepped up. I had faith in him and he stepped up."

Indeed. Howell whipped a pass to Andre Patterson for a lay-up that boosted the lead to 73-70. But Florida closed to 75-74 and, with 1:30 remaining, fouled Howell, who hadn't attempted a single free throw in 1½ seasons of college ball. He swished the first try, boosting the lead to 76-74, but missed the second.

Florida's Corey Brewer scored the last of his team-high 20 points on a pair of free throws, tying the score at 76 with 45 seconds left. Lofton, who led all scorers with 29 points, jacked up a 35-footer that bounded off the front rim and into the hands of Brewer, who roared upcourt leading a 2-on-1 fast break.

At this point Lofton made the biggest play of the night – perhaps the biggest play of the year – by feinting toward Brewer, then dropping back to intercept the Florida star's shovel pass.

"I thought he was (going to give up the ball)," Lofton said. "It was a 2-on-1 fast break, so I started to go at him. When I saw him getting ready to pass, I jumped back and he threw it right to me."

Thinking quickly, Lofton alertly fired a 60-foot strike to Dane Bradshaw, whose transition lay-up gave Tennessee a 78-76 lead with 20.4 seconds left.

Lofton's night wasn't finished, though. When Maryville native Lee Humphrey of Florida missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer, it was Lofton who rebounded and was fouled with six seconds left. The sophomore guard drained both free throws to give the Vols a thrilling 80-76 victory and give the Gators (17-1 overall, 3-1 SEC) their first loss of the season.

Moments after seeing his team move to 12-3 overall and 3-1 in league play, UT head coach Bruce Pearl labeled the victory "a shot that's going to be heard around the world."

Saturday night's crowd probably could be heard around the world, as well. A whopping 24,011 showed up to support the home team, and they were vocal from the opening tip to the final horn.

"I can't begin to emphasize the difference 24,000 made in our play and our poise," Pearl said, adding that he never imagined a night like this one "in my wildest dreams."

After struggling in recent losses to LSU and Memphis, Lofton bounced back in a big way. He hit 10 of 19 from the floor, including 5 of 13 from beyond the arc. In addition to 29 points, he contributed 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.

"Lofton was ‘The Man' tonight," Pearl said. "He had that look. Florida saw that look. Everybody saw that look."

The Vols also got tremendous contributions from two reserves. Patterson produced a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) but also recorded 3 assists, a block and a steal in 28 sterling minutes. JaJuan Smith chipped in 10 points and 6 rebounds in 29 minutes.

Pearl said Patterson "played with courage and confidence, and was a difference-maker for us athletically." The coach characterized Smith as "a catalyst for us."

Tennessee returns to action Wednesday night, visiting Mississippi State.

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