Crews was so confident Lofton's last few shots were going in that he said, "I just stood in the corner and watched like ‘I ain't goin' for no rebound' (because he knew there wouldn't be one)."
Shaking his head in awe, head coach Bruce Pearl summed up the performance in four words: "Chris Lofton is amazing."
Not anymore. The 6-2 junior sharpshooter has been making mind-boggling shots for so long that his feats no longer amaze senior forward Dane Bradshaw.
"I used to be (amazed) but I'm not even shocked anymore," Bradshaw said. "He just has a natural sense of how to get the ball in the hole."
Lofton put the ball in the hole 12 times in 18 attempts Wednesday night. When the Tigers pressured him on the perimeter, he deftly drove past them for layups. When they backed off to stop the drive, he fired 3-pointers over their heads, hitting 6 of 11 from beyond the arc.
"They played me for the shot first, and I got some easy buckets with the drive," he said. "Then they switched and started playing the drive, and I started relying on my jump shot."
Usually a slow starter, Lofton changed the script this time. He was on fire from the opening tip.
"I think I hit my first five shots," he said. "When you do that, you think you're on top of the world."
With Tennessee leading just 18-17 midway through the first half, Lofton went on a one-man rampage. He scored on a 3-pointer, three consecutive drives and another 3 – producing 12 points in a 25-3 explosion that turned an 18-17 margin into a 43-20 bulge. By the break he was 9 of 11 from the floor, and Tennessee was up 43-22.
"Coach just kept on calling my number," he deadpanned, "and I just kept on scoring."
When Memphis pulled within 12 (47-35) seven minutes into the second half, Lofton came to the rescue. He scored Tennessee's next 10 points – two 3s and four free throws – to keep the Tigers from drawing any closer. One of the 3s was a fall-away 25-footer under duress that ended with him flat on his back. It boosted Tennessee's lead to 55-38 and brought the crowd to its feet.
"That was probably a bad shot," he said with a laugh. "But it felt good, so I let it go."
Lofton's final 3 was a real backbreaker, coming seconds after the Tigers had narrowed the gap to 13 points (67-54) with just over four minutes remaining. Pearl removed him from the game with 38 seconds left, providing the crowd of 19,714 a chance to give him another standing ovation. Bradshaw, who finished with 11 points and 9 rebounds, got the same treatment seconds later.
The positives were plentiful for Tennessee, now 7-2. The Vols limited Memphis to 28.6-percent shooting, including an icy 17.9 percent (5 of 28) from 3-point range. Tennessee outrebounded the taller Tigers 50-48 and even managed to shine from the line, hitting 17 of 20 free throws.
One of the keys to the game was getting 6-9, 260-pound Memphis star Joey Dorsey in early foul trouble. Dorsey dominated on the inside while he was on the floor but he wasn't on the floor much. He speared 13 rebounds in 15 minutes before fouling out with 6:24 to play.
Tennessee's JaJuan Smith also was saddled with foul trouble, playing just 3 first-half minutes. Freshman Josh Tabb filled the void nicely, however, finishing with 6 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in 24 quality minutes.
Memphis, now 6-2, got 19 points from Chris Douglas-Roberts and 13 from Robert Dozier. Freshman point guard Willie Kemp, booed roundly for picking the Tigers over Tennessee during the recruiting process last fall, finished 1 of 11 from the floor.
Following a 10-day break for final exams, the Vols return to action Dec. 16, hosting Western Kentucky. That game is set for a 4 p.m. start with TV coverage by Fox Sports South.