Lofton's late push lifts UT

Saving his best for last, Chris Lofton scored 11 points in the final 5:35 Saturday, spearheading a big finish that lifted the Tennessee Vols to a 71-65 defeat of the Georgia Bulldogs at Stegman Coliseum.

The win, Tennessee's seventh in the past eight games, allowed the Vols to finish the regular season 22-9 overall and 10-6 in SEC play, matching Vanderbilt for the second-best record in the league. And, after losing their first six SEC road games, the Vols won their last two.

JaJuan Smith led the Vols with 19 points. Lofton added 14 – all in the second half – and Ramar Smith chipped in 13.

Sundiata Gaines scored 18 to pace Georgia, which slips to 17-12 overall and 8-8 in league play. Takais Brown added 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Bulldogs, who have dropped their last six meetings with Tennessee.

Tennessee stormed to an early 25-13 lead but went ice cold when its top two scorers – Lofton and JaJuan Smith – went to the bench with two fouls each. The Vols' offensive struggles continued at the start of the second half, enabling the Bulldogs to make a 17-8 run that turned a 33-30 halftime deficit into a 47-41 lead. Still, the Vols never panicked.

"You've got to have patience," head coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show. "It's not a sprint; it's kind of a marathon."

Ramar Smith came up big at this point. He fed JaJuan Smith for a layup, then drained a 3-pointer to pull the Vols within 47-46. Moments later, Ramar assisted Wayne Chism for a layup that tied the score at 50. After a bucket by Georgia's Levi Stukes, Ramar tied the score at 52 on a nifty drive.

After another bucket by Stukes gave Georgia a 54-52 lead, Lofton put the Vols on his shoulders and carried them to the finish line. He drained back-to-back 3-poiners, then scored on a steal and drive – single handedly outscoring Georgia 8-2 as Tennessee surged ahead 60-56. Chism then dropped a bomb from the top of the key, and it was 63-56 with 2:22 remaining.

Lofton hit three free throws, Ramar Smith and Dane Bradshaw two each to help Tennessee hold on down the stretch.

A key to the game – as was the case when Tennessee won 82-71 Jan. 31 in Knoxville – was 3-point shooting. The Vols made 11 of 26 this time, Georgia just 5 of 21. Stukes, the leading 3-point shooter in Bulldog history, was 0 of 6 from beyond the arc.

"He's obviously better from three than two," Pearl said. "We really felt like this Georgia basketball team was relying on the three-ball. They had 12 threes against Mississippi State, they had 11 threes at Kentucky, and we were bound and determined to not let them beat us from the 3-point line."

Mission accomplished.

Tennessee returns to action Thursday in Round 1 of the SEC Tournament at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. As the No. 3 seed from the East, the Vols will face LSU, the No. 6 seed from the West, at 9:45 p.m.

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