Crisis averted

Tennessee head basketball coach Bruce Pearl recently deadpanned that injured guard Chris Lofton would have played Wednesday night against Georgia only if it had been "Game 7 of the NBA playoffs."

Actually, the mid-week match-up was more like Game 4 of the NBA playoffs … with Tennessee down three games to none. A home-floor loss to the Dawgs would've dropped the Vols' SEC record to 2-5 and virtually ended their hopes of earning an NCAA Tournament bid.

With Tennessee coming off five losses in its previous six games, Pearl told his team that the Georgia contest represented a "must-win situation," adding: "Our RPI is 19, and we need to act like it."

Junior guard JaJuan Smith said Pearl's pep talk had the desired effect. It convinced the Vols that losing to the visiting Bulldogs was not an option.

"Oh, man, it was a motivation when he said that," Smith said. "That just let us know we'd dug ourselves a hole real early, with a long season still to go."

Although the Vols were extremely focused, they weren't nervous. That enabled them to play one of their better games of the season en route to an 82-71 victory.

"It wasn't a panic game," Smith said, "but we knew we had to come out and want it more."

Jordan Howell, another junior guard, thought the Vols were more determined than the visitors.

"Coach Pearl said before the game, ‘I want you to want this game more than Georgia.' I feel like we did," Howell said. "We took it as a must-win, and I don't think they took it as that."

Tennessee's season has been a real rollercoaster ride. After going 7-0 in December, they went 3-5 in January. How they play in February will determine if they make the Big Dance in March.

"Coach Pearl talked all year about us playing the best basketball at the end of the season," Howell said. "I think (the Georgia game) was a big step to get us toward that. Last year we had already peaked, and at the end of the season – come tournament time – we weren't playing our best basketball."

The Vols' hopes of playing their best basketball will get a big lift when Lofton returns to action. The preseason All-American has missed the past three games and is listed as "doubtful" for Saturday's game at top-ranked Florida.

"We're a real good team right now but, with Chris, we're a great team," Smith said. "We're just going to pray and try to do the best to get Chris back. But if he don't come back we'll just have to man up and go on."

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