Redemption awaits

For Tennessee's Basketball Vols, the road to redemption runs through Newark, N.J.

Thanks to two years of explosive offense and feisty full-court defense, Bruce Pearl's troops have won the respect of teams throughout The South. In their one foray to The East, however, they were more fizzle than sizzle. After advancing to New York City for the Preseason NIT semifinals last November, they lost 56-44 to Butler in Game 1 and then fell 101-87 to North Carolina in the consolation game.

Suffering two double-digit losses in The Big Apple was understandably disappointing for the Big Orange. Playing well below their usual standard was even more discouraging. That's why the Vols will be looking for redemption in the Legends Classic this weekend at Newark, located just nine miles from New York City.

Getting a second chance to impress some of America's most influential basketball writers is an opportunity Tennessee's players relish. They are determined to take full advantage.

"We know we've got a challenge on our hands to go up there and redeem ourselves because we got embarrassed up there last year in the NIT," All-American Chris Lofton said. "I was disappointed; the team was disappointed. We're going to New Jersey this weekend on a mission."

Fellow senior JaJuan Smith echoed those sentiments.

"We're trying to get back there to redeem ourselves," he said. "In New York last year we were 0-2, so this is going to be a big challenge for us, and we're going to try and live up to it."

Because of the mind-boggling media concentration in The Big Apple, Tennessee's status in the college hoops world could soar with strong showings tonight against West Virginia (9 p.m.) and tomorrow against either Texas or New Mexico State.

"Yeah, this is real big for us as a team," Smith said. "We're going to try to go up there and show ‘em what Tennessee basketball is doing now. We're going to try and make a name for ourselves."

Tennessee has some momentum entering tonight's action. After giving the worst performance of the Pearl era in a lethargic 89-75 defeat of Prairie View, the Vols bounced back by giving perhaps the best performance of the Pearl era in Tuesday's 109-40 blowout of Middle Tennessee. The Vols outshot the Blue Raiders 65 percent to 31, forced 29 turnovers and recorded 30 assists.

"The last game (Prairie View) we played sloppy," Smith noted, "so we tried to get in here, turn it around (vs. Middle) and get ready for this tournament we're heading into. I thought we capitalized."

Smith certainly capitalized. He hit 11 of 15 shots, including 7 of 11 from 3-point range, en route to a career-high 32 points against Middle Tennessee. His backcourt mate played pretty well, too. Lofton hit 6 of 9 shots – draining 5 of 8 from 3 – en route to a 17-point, 7-assist effort.

Lofton entered Tuesday's game shooting just 21.4 percent from the field and 17.6 percent from beyond the arc. With Tennessee's level of competition rising dramatically this weekend, his breakout game couldn't have come at a better time.

"It was great to hit those shots," he said. "My teammates were getting me open looks and I was knocking ‘em down."

If he can knock down some more this weekend, the Big Orange could take the Big Apple by storm ... and earn some redemption in the process.

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