The victory was just Tennessee's second in the last 28 meetings at Rupp Arena and fourth in the 31-year history of the building. The Vols now stand 17-3 overall, 8-1 in SEC play. Kentucky slips to 15-8 and 5-4 after suffering its third home-floor loss of the conference season.
Tennessee led from the midway mark of the first half until the final 5:55, when two free throws by Randolph Morris put UK on top 63-62. The Wildcats were pumped and their fans were screaming but Tennessee's players kept their composure.
"There was no panic," Vol head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game radio show. "They played like cagey veterans."
Morris, who led the Big Blue with 20 points, sank two more free throws to give the Cats a 65-64 lead with 3:31 to go. Tennessee took over at this point, however, outscoring the Big Blue 9-0 over the next three minutes. Lofton produced seven of the nine points, hitting a running 8-footer, a transition basket and a three-point play as the Vols went up 73-65 with 21 seconds left.
Asked about UT's late-game poise on his post-game show, Pearl laughed.
"We got it to Lofton," he said. "That was poise. What a great call! Coming out of a timeout, (he would say)‘Set a screen and get it to Lofton. Let him go and do it.'"
Lofton finished 11 of 18 from the floor. In addition to his 31 points, he contributed 7 rebounds. Major Wingate chipped in 12 points and C.J. Watson 10 points, 5 rebounds and just 2 turnovers in 33 minutes at the point. Andre Patterson produced just 4 points but speared 10 rebounds, helping UT to a 38-36 advantage on the boards.
"I thought the key to the whole thing was the rebounding," Pearl said. "Kentucky is the second-best rebounding team in the league, and that was the key."
Although Morris killed Tennessee on the inside, he was all the Wildcats had. They mustered no outside threat whatsoever, hitting just 4 of 16 attempts from 3-point range, including 1 of 11 in the second half.
Tennessee returns to action Saturday, visiting Georgia in Athens. Tip-off is set for 4 p.m. The Vols beat the Dawgs 89-76 Jan. 11 in Knoxville.