UK to bring out Lofton's best?

The last time he faced Kentucky at Rupp Arena – coming off a 12-point performance against Ole Miss in February of 2006 – he burned the Big Blue for 31 points.

The last time Maysville native Chris Lofton will ever face Kentucky at Rupp Arena – coming off a 13-point performance against Ohio State on Saturday – arrives Tuesday night at 9 o'clock.

Is another peak performance before the home-state fans in the offing? Perhaps.

Although he scored a modest 13 points on Saturday, Lofton's stroke looked better than it has all season. He hit 4 of 10 shots from 3-point range but, even on the misses, he exhibited a smooth release and a nice follow-through – two attributes that have been missing on a regular basis this season.

"I think he's back," teammate Ramar Smith said following Saturday's game. "Shooters go into slumps sometimes but tonight he showed he's possibly back ... and I think he is. He hit a lot of big 3s for us."

Lofton conceded that his stroke felt better.

"It was a lot better than it has been this whole year," he said. "I don't know what it was but I missed some wide-open looks, especially in the first half. Coach got on me about that but I've just got to keep shooting."

No one wants Lofton to "keep shooting" more than Bruce Pearl. Watching Lofton miss open 3s doesn't bother the Vols' head coach nearly as much as watching him pass up open 3s.

In the late stages of last Thursday night's game with Vanderbilt, Lofton got the ball with six seconds left on the shot clock and promptly dished to JaJuan Smith, who had to launch an off-target 30-footer as the shot clock expired. Pearl erupted on the Vol sidelines.

Lofton's reluctance to shoot is understandable. He has better weapons around him, so he no longer has to carry the offense on a regular basis. Moreover, he is hitting just 34.5 percent of his 3-pointers this season, nearly 10 percentage points below the career mark of 43.8 he carried into the 2007-08 season.

Facing Kentucky tends to bring out the best in Lofton, however. As a freshman he hit 5 of 9 shots from 3 en route to 17 points in the 2005 game at Knoxville. He came back later that season to score 10 points in the showdown at Lexington

As a sophomore in 2006, Lofton drained 7 of 10 from 3 en route to the 31-point performance at Rupp Arena already mentioned. He came back later that season to score 15 points in the rematch at Knoxville.

Last year he missed the game in Lexington due to a severe ankle sprain but drained 6 of 14 from beyond the arc en route to 23 points when the Big Blue invaded Thompson-Boling Arena just 2½ weeks later.

Like big-time quarterbacks, big-time shooters are nearly unstoppable when they find a rhythm. Lofton has been looking for his rhythm all season.

"I felt a little bit better but it's not great right now," he said following the Ohio State game. "Like I've said before, I can't really complain. Our team is 16-1 and we're playing good basketball."

Lofton nailed his first 3 of the Vanderbilt game mere seconds after the Commodores switched from man-to-man to zone early in the second half. He also looked good against the 2-3 zone Ohio State played on Saturday. Still, he says he prefers facing man-to-man defenses.

"Zone is fine but I like man to man," he said. "I can come off screens better and do some stuff. But if a team plays zone, Ramar can penetrate and I try to get open."

Because he is such a class act, Lofton patiently discusses his sub-par shooting this season, even though he has grown weary of the questions. Pearl has grown even wearier of the questions.

When asked about Lofton's shooting vs. Ohio State, the Vol coach's response was short and sweet:

"Chris made four 3s. That's pretty good."

When another reporter asked a follow-up question on the same topic, Pearl rolled his eyes.

"God bless you. He made four 3s," the coach reiterated.

After a long pause, Pearl continued:

"Chris made four great 3-point baskets. They were wonderful shots. He is a tremendous weapon. His defense is much, much improved. Let's be 16-1 and understand that he will play better. He IS playing better."

With his final visit to Rupp Arena upcoming, he may be playing his best Tuesday night.


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