What they never figured was that freshman Ramar Smith would suddenly launch into a Chris Lofton impersonation. Known as a great penetrator and mediocre outside shooter, Smith stunned the Bulldogs – and the crowd – with a clutch 3-pointer that widened the gap to 58-48. Then, as if to show it was no fluke, he drained another one.
Smith's back-to-back treys swelled the lead to 13 points (61-48) and sent the Vols on their way to a crucial 82-71 victory. Tennessee takes a 15-7 overall record and a 3-4 league mark to Gainesville Saturday to challenge defending national champ Florida. Georgia, which could've seriously dimmed Tennessee's NCAA Tournament hopes with a win, slips to 13-7 and 5-3.
Lofton, still slowed by a sprained ankle, dressed out but did not play. Head coach Bruce Pearl said the sharp-shooting junior was available only in case of "emergency." Thanks to Ramar Smith, Wednesday's game never reached that stage. The flashy rookie finished with a career-high 21 points, hitting 8 of 11 from the floor, including 3 of 4 from beyond the arc.
"I just felt good tonight," Smith said. "My teammates gave me a lot of energy."
Smith fed off that energy, nailing clutch 3-pointers that helped offset the absence of Lofton, who leads the SEC in treys.
"The outside shot is coming along pretty good," Smith said. "I'm working real hard on it. If I start knocking that shot down, it's going to be easier for me to get to the basket."
Junior JaJuan Smith hit 7 of 10 (5 of 8 from 3-point range) and scored 22 points for the Vols. Jordan Howell came off the bench to post a career-best 11 points. Freshman Duke Crews produced a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) with 4 blocks in a spectacular 25-minute relief stint.
Slippery guard Sundiata Gaines led Georgia in both points (21) and rebounds (7).
Basically, this game was won at the line … the 3-point line. Tennessee hit 11 of 23. Georgia made just 6 of 26, including an icy 1 of 14 (7.1 percent) in the first half.
Pearl said Wednesday was "probably the best half-court defensive effort we've had since I've been here." The numbers suggest as much. Georgia, which ranks second among SEC teams in both field goal percentage (48.2) and 3-point percentage (40.4), hit just 38.5 percent from the floor and 23.1 percent from beyond the arc on this night.
The Bulldogs may have contributed to their own demise. Having won five of their previous six games, they were supremely confident during pre-game warm-ups … a bit TOO confident to suit Ramar Smith.
"They came out during the warm-ups like we weren't even there," he grumbled. "That really made us mad. They carried theirselves like they knew they were going to come in here and win. After seeing that, we really couldn't let it happen."