Lofton destroys the Dawgs

The All-American was back on his game. Ramar Smith was back in the lineup. Duke Crews was back in the rotation. And No. 3 Tennessee was back in the win column.

All was right with the world Saturday night at Thompson-Boling Arena as the Vols thumped visiting Georgia 85-69 in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score suggests.

Chris Lofton, living up to his preseason All-America billing, drained six of eight 3-pointers and scored almost as many first-half points (20) as the visiting Bulldogs (23), helping Tennessee storm to a 44-23 intermission lead. The final score was the closest Georgia got thereafter.

Lofton finished 9 of 17 from the floor and led all scorers with a season-high 27 points. He made seven 3-pointers, giving him 374 for his career and vaulting him into the all-time NCAA top 10 in that category.

After hitting four of 10 treys vs. Ohio State last Saturday, five of 10 vs. Kentucky on Tuesday and seven of 13 vs. Georgia – 16 of 33 over his last three games – Lofton's season-long slump is officially ended.

"I haven't changed anything," he said. "They're just falling for me right now. I'm getting great looks right now. My teammates are doing a good job of finding me."

And Lofton is doing a good job of finding the basket once his teammates found him. After exhibiting some timidity earlier in the season, he has been more aggressive the past three outings.

"I guess you could say that," he said. "I've been looking to shoot more the past couple of games."

Several times this year Lofton missed his first few shots, then basically spent the rest of the night as a decoy. This time he drained his first two 3s and was off to the races.

"When you hit one or two in a row at the beginning your confidence goes sky high," he said. "Then you get that other one, and the rim keeps getting bigger and bigger."

With Lofton looking more and more for his shot, Tyler Smith (9 assists) and Ramar Smith (8 assists) began looking more and more for Lofton.

"We've got those great penetrators in Ramar and Tyler," Lofton said. "I give all the credit to those two guys; they find you in transition."

No one was happier about Lofton's eye-popping performance than Bruce Pearl.

"It was great to see Chris play so well – hunting his shot, not even hesitating and not turning it over," Tennessee's head coach said.

Because he is remarkably modest for a superstar, Lofton is a real favorite with Vol fans. After providing considerable support during his earlier struggles, they went wild when he went off in the opening minutes Saturday night.

Following a JaJuan Smith breakaway, Lofton drained a 3 from the left wing and another from the left corner, giving the Vols an 8-2 lead with less than three minutes gone. The home crowd enthusiastically roared its approval.

"It was great," he said. "This crowd is great. It's like our sixth man out there on the floor."

Still, the biggest ovation of the night was for Crews, who hadn't played since Dec. 4 because doctors have been carefully monitoring a heart condition. When he checked in at the scorer's table with 14:13 left in the first half, the crowd immediately responded with a standing ovation.

"I'm so happy for Duke," Lofton said. "When they cleared him to play, I probably got more happy than he did. I hate to see that happen to people – take the game away from them that they love."

Crews nearly achieved a double-double, finishing with 9 points and 8 rebounds in 14 productive minutes off the bench.

Meanwhile, Tyler Smith came pretty close to a triple-double – recording 17 points (on 7-of-9 shooting), 9 assists and 7 rebounds. Ramar Smith, starting at the point for the first time since Game 3, contributed 7 points, 8 assists and 2 steals.

Obviously, the game is a lot easier for all of the Vols when Lofton's shots are falling and opponents are extending their defense to try and guard him.

"When he's on, we're all on," Ramar Smith said. "We make a lot of runs when he's hitting, and he showed tonight that he's back."

Coming off a disappointing loss at Kentucky, the Vols clearly were eager to redeem themselves against Georgia. They shot a sizzling 57.1 percent from the floor, 45.0 percent from 3, forced 21 turnovers and won the backboard battle 40-37.

"This was an important bounce-back tonight," Pearl said.

Tennessee, now 17-2 overall and 4-1 in SEC play after notching its 27th consecutive home-floor win, performed admirably in every area except free-throw shooting. The Vols made just 12 of 27 tries, 44.4 percent.

Sundiata Gaines scored 20 points, Dave Bliss and Billy Humphrey 15 each for the Dawgs, who slip to 11-6 overall and 2-2 in SEC play.

Tennessee returns to action Tuesday, visiting Alabama for a 9 p.m. tipoff. That game will be televised by ESPN.

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