Wings carry UT past WKU

Chris Lofton needed 11 minutes to warm up Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena. Fellow wing JaJuan Smith needed 36 minutes to find his rhythm. Once they got started, though, Western Kentucky was finished.

After managing just three points in the first 11 minutes, Lofton scored 29 over the final 29 minutes. After hitting just 3 of 12 shots over the first 36 minutes, Smith drained three consecutive 3-pointers from the right corner in the final 3:05.

The result: Lofton finished with 32 points, Smith finished with 21 and Tennessee finished with a 93-79 victory.

Lofton, 11 of 15 overall, was 5 of 9 on 3-pointers with almost all of them coming from the left corner. Smith, 6 of 15 overall, was 5 of 11 on 3-pointers with most of his coming from the right corner.

"We were hard to guard, obviously, the way we shot the ball, especially from 3," head coach Bruce Pearl said. "With both JaJuan and Chris on either side of the floor making shots like that, it was good to see."

Asked why he was so quiet the first 11 minutes, Lofton replied: "I just was trying to not force shots. I just tried to run the offense."

Maybe Tennessee is better when Lofton DOES force shots. With the Vols trailing 21-20, Duke Crews drove for a tomahawk dunk and Lofton drained two 3-pointers in a 9-0 run that put Tennessee on top 29-21.

Western closed to 37-32 but Lofton drained another 3, then added a coast-to-coast drive for an old-fashioned three-point play to give the Vols a 47-36 lead at the break.

The Hilltoppers pulled within 52-47 early in the second half but Lofton bagged a 3, two free throws and a seven-footer in a 9-2 spurt that padded the lead to 61-49.

Western rallied again, narrowing the gap to four points (64-60) with 7:49 to play. As happened each time the visitors made a run, however, Lofton launched a counter-offensive. He hit a driving five-footer to open a 7-0 spurt that he closed a minute later with another coast-to-coast three-point play, pushing the lead to 71-60.

Smith took it from there. Finding his spot in the right corner, he hit 3-pointers at the 3:05 mark, the 2:30 mark and the 1:16 mark – each time answering a WKU score. That enabled the Vols to stretch the lead to 17 points (93-76) before Western hit a late 3 to secure the final margin.

Freshman guard Ramar Smith and sophomore forward Ryan Childress were big off the bench. Smith hit 4 of 5 from the floor en route to a career-high 15 points. Childress produced 7 points, a career-high 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and a block. Childress played 22 minutes because Dane Bradshaw was limited to 23 minutes by a right shoulder injury and Wayne Chism was limited to 12 minutes by foul trouble.

Courtney Lee scored 17 and freshman Jeremy Evans 13 for WKU, which slips to 8-3. The Hilltoppers, normally an outstanding team from 3-point range, hit just 1 of 12 treys in the first half and finished 7 of 24 for a mere 29.2 percent.

Lofton has produced 30 or more points in three of the last four games – all victories – helping the Vols move to 8-2. He scored 31 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, 20 against Murray State, a career-high 34 vs. Memphis and 32 vs. WKU. Asked about his hot streak, he shrugged it off in typically modest fashion.

"As long as we're winning, I'm happy," he said. "I don't look to be trying to score all the time."

Maybe he should.

"Chris just keeps doing what he's doing," Pearl said. "He's hunting his shot and he doesn't miss. He's getting to the basket. He's 'and-oneing' and he's playing solid defense. Chris is playing very well right now."

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