After playing somewhat tentatively in the Vols' three previous games, Chris Lofton was anything but shy Monday night. The 6-2 junior sharpshooter finished nine of 16 from the floor, including 5 of 10 from 3-point range.
"Once he gets going, I'm doing everything I can to set ball screens for him, get hand-offs for him and try to get him the ball," UT head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show.
Lofton's new emphasis on taking the ball to the hoop paid dividends. He shot a career-high eight free throws, making seven.
Pearl noted that Lofton was especially effective getting to the foul line in the final minutes, when the Vols needed him most.
"He scored a lot of our points at the end of the game, a la C.J. Watson," Pearl said, referring to the Vols' 2005-06 point guard. "We've got to find a way to get the ball into Chris's hands late in the game so he can make those plays."
Lofton came out aggressively, scoring the game's opening basket on a reverse layup and adding a 3-pointer to help fuel a 13-0 spurt that turned a 6-5 deficit into an 18-6 Vol lead.
Fordham (1-1) clawed back to grab a 24-22 lead but Lofton broke the Rams' momentum by hitting a 3. He picked up his second foul with 7 minutes left in the half and went to the bench for a few minutes. When he returned, he flashed the form that made him one of the NCAA's premier offensive weapons last season.
With Tennessee clinging to a scant two-point lead, Lofton drained a 3 and two free throws. After nailing another 3, he intercepted the ensuing inbounds pass and scored, single-handedly outscoring Fordham 10-1 during a 70-second spurt that saw the lead expand from 28-26 to 38-27. He added a free throw seconds later, giving him 11 consecutive UT points and helping Tennessee build a 40-28 halftime lead.
The Rams whittled the lead to five (54-49) midway through the second half but Ramar Smith scored on a follow dunk and Dane Bradshaw nailed a 3-pointer to give Tennessee some breathing room. Moments later, Lofton sandwiched two drives around a JaJuan Smith layup as the lead swelled to 14 (65-51) with 8 minutes remaining.
Fordham rallied one last time, however, trimming the deficit to four (75-71) with a minute to play. Lofton hit a pair of free throws and JaJuan Smith added another, however, as the Vols weathered the storm.
Though outshot 47-46 percent from the field, Tennessee outrebounded Fordham 33-28 and forced 29 Ram turnovers.
"I thought we did a good job of keeping those guys off the boards," Pearl said. "Our guys are fairly athletic."
The Vols were a bit on the sloppy side themselves, committing 26 turnovers. But that was a product of the blazing pace Tennessee set.
"In the second half, you could see how Fordham really ground it out with their halfcourt game," Pearl said. "The fact we were able to get the game going up and down was a real key to our success."
Vol freshman Duke Crews chipped in 11 points in support of Lofton. Freshman Brenton Butler scored 20 to pace Fordham. Bryant Dunston, the Rams' All-Atlantic 10 post player, finished with 8 points, 4 turnovers and 4 fouls in 19 nondescript minutes.
"I thought Dunston might be more of a factor on the inside," Pearl noted, citing foul trouble and the fact that "our freshmen (6-8 Crews and 6-9 Wayne Chism) did a really, really good job against a really good inside player."