JaJuan to the rescue

He was supposed to play the role of sidekick to Chris Lofton this season. Instead, he is playing the role of life raft ... rescuing Tennessee's basketball season.

So, where would the Tennessee Vols be without JaJuan Smith?

Answer: They certainly wouldn't be 13-1 heading into tonight's 8 o'clock tipoff at South Carolina.

With Lofton falling short of his preseason All-America form, Smith has been a reliable fall-back plan for the Vols all season. He's averaging a team-high 14.9 points per game. He's outshooting Lofton from the field (44.5 to 34.3 percent) and 3-point range (36.7 to 33.9) while matching him from the foul line (85.7). He has two more assists (39 to 37) and six more steals (27 to 21).

Wednesday night's 85-83 defeat of Ole Miss was just another example of how much JaJuan Smith means to Tennessee. He hit 8 of 15 shots, including 5 of 10 from 3-point range. He recorded a team-high 21 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, dished out 2 assists and made a steal.

The Vols scored just one basket in a nine-minute stretch that saw Ole Miss go from 12 down to four ahead with 2:22 to play. The guy who scored it? JaJuan Smith on a nifty drive.

"That's something I've been trying to add to my game – taking the ball to the rack," he said. "Coach (Bruce Pearl) keeps preaching it to me, and I'm going to try to keep getting better on it each and every day."

He's trying to get better in terms of leadership, as well. When things weren't going well for Tennessee on Wednesday night, he was the guy working hardest to rally the troops.

"Man, I was just trying to come out and lead," he said. "I know what it takes to get a win in SEC play. Every team is great; I've been there, done that, so I just came out and tried to give us a lift."

When Ole Miss surged ahead 83-79 with just over two minutes remaining, the Vols appeared to be reeling. Smith responded by displaying even more energy and enthusiasm.

"I just want to keep my team up," he said. "The way we play ball anything can happen. We can hit you with a 9-0 run in less than 15 seconds. Down four, we just kept our composure, fought real hard and locked up on defense."

Smith's defense on Rebel point guard Chris Warren proved crucial. Warren scored 24 points but had trouble running the offense at times.

"Warren is a very tough cover," Pearl said. "I thought we did a good job rotating on him. Jordan Howell and JaJuan Smith primarily had that cover. He only had one assist and five turnovers, so we did wear him out a little bit and he wasn't as big a factor at the end."

With Lofton struggling Wednesday night, the Vols needed more offense from Smith. As he became more assertive, Lofton became less assertive.

"I really didn't have a good night, so you give the ball to your hot hands," Lofton said. "JaJuan and Tyler was hitting shots and kept us going, so we just tried to have our offense based around those two."

With two of the SEC's premier shooters in one backcourt, you'd think there might be a little friction between Lofton and Smith. Not so. Lofton seems to be his backcourt mate's biggest fan.

"JaJuan is a very underrated player," he said. "He does a lot for this team, offensively and defensively. He's our team MVP."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories