Gordon barely missed a triple-double – producing 25 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists. Lofton was a bigger factor down the stretch, however. The Vol junior notched 11 of his 21 points in the final 8 minutes, during which time UT outscored State 24-12 to turn a four-point deficit into an eight-point victory.
Lofton, who scored eight of Tennessee's last 10 points vs. ETSU last Saturday, has emerged as the take-charge guy down the stretch. Asked if Pearl instructed him to do so, Lofton shook his head.
"It's a sense of urgency," he said. "My teammates give me a look like ‘It's time to go.'"
Lofton suggested his big finish on Sunday also was an attempt to redeem himself after scoring just 10 points in the first 32 minutes.
" I hadn't really showed up the first half and the first part of the second half," he said. "So I was just trying to go to the rack, get to the foul line, get some easy buckets and try to get us going."
Freshman point guard Ramar Smith came through for Tennessee during the final 8 minutes, as well. With the Vols trailing 72-68, he made an acrobatic four-foot tip-in of his own missed shot with 7:32 remaining. He bagged a pair of free throws that gave Tennessee an 81-75 lead at the 4:34 mark and scored the game's final points on a nifty drive with 11.5 seconds left. Smith finished with 13 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists and just 1 turnover in 33 brilliant minutes.
Another UT freshman, Duke Crews, came up big. The 6-7 post player scored a career-high 18 points and grabbed 6 rebounds, 5 off the offensive glass. Junior JaJuan Smith chipped in 12 points as Tennessee won its ninth game in a row and moved to 13-2 on the season.
Gordon scored six points during the game's final 8 minutes but had the ball stolen by Dane Bradshaw with 17 seconds left and UT leading 90-84. Pearl noted that "We got Gordon to go a little faster than he wanted to on that last possession."
Charles Rhodes, a 6-8, 240-pound post player, came off the bench to add 15 points and 10 rebounds for the visitors, now 9-5 overall. Rhodes outmuscled and outhustled the Vols on the inside, hitting 7 of 9 floor shots and getting six of his rebounds off the offensive backboard.
Tennessee shot 55.4 percent from the floor and 41.7 percent from 3-point range but struggled defensively with Mississippi State's quickness to the basket and its aggressiveness on the backboards. The Bulldogs shot 55.2 percent from the field and 43.5 beyond the arc. They beat the Vols on the backboards 35-27 and committed just 16 turnovers. This did not look like the same team Tennessee routed 88-65 last year in Starkville.
If the SEC opener is any indication, the Vols will not be posting many lopsided victories the rest of this season, starting with Wednesday's game at Vanderbilt.
"Stay tuned," Pearl said. "It's going to be a wild one and a wacky one."