"All things were equal," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said on his post-game show, "but 5 (Lofton) wasn't going to let us lose.... Chris Lofton put this team on his shoulders and he brought it home."
After going 1 for 6 from beyond the arc en route to just 3 first-half points, Lofton found a soft spot on the left side of Georgia's 2-3 zone and hit 5 of 6 treys in the second half.
Pearl noted that Lofton was on the opposite corner of the arena in the first half, adding that "He couldn't have been further from me, and he hardly touched it.... Our guys have got to recognize where number 5 is, and we didn't do a very good job of it."
Conversely, with Tennessee playing offense near its own bench in the second half, Pearl was able to shout more instructions to his team and Lofton was able to get better looks.
"Down there (the second half), he's right in front of me, so you'd better believe he's going to touch it," the coach said. "We got the ball down there to the corner."
The Vols led 35-31 at halftime but the Bulldogs rallied and held a 51-48 lead with 14 minutes remaining. Tyler Smith scored twice during a 10-0 spurt that put Tennessee ahead 58-51 with 10:54 to play, however, and the game essentially turned into a Lofton-versus-Georgia shootout thereafter.
A Lofton 3 from the left corner gave Tennessee a 65-55 lead with 8:41 to go but the Dawgs used a 7-0 spurt to close within 65-62. Lofton hit another 3 – this time from the right wing – to provide a 71-62 lead with 5:07 left. When Georgia clawed back to 71-67, Lofton drained yet another 3 for a 74-67 lead with 3:46 remaining. The Vols would not score again, however.
Baskets by Georgia's Jeremy Price and Zac Swansey narrowed the gap to 74-71 with 2:37 to go. Tennessee's JaJuan Smith badly missed a 3-pointer but Terrance Woodbury missed a potential game-tying 3 for Georgia.
Tyler Smith missed the front end of a potential game-clinching 1 and 1 with 6.2 seconds left. Lofton then fouled Sundiata Gaines, happy to give the Bulldog point guard a 1 and 1 with 2.7 seconds remaining.
Gaines missed the first free throw but got his own rebound. His potential game-tying 3 from the left corner clanged off the rim at the buzzer, however, enabling Tennessee to notch its eighth consecutive win in the series and 10th in the last 11 meetings.
Lofton, who came in with a 20.7 career scoring average vs. Georgia, burned the Dawgs for 22 points this time. Wayne Chism added 16 points, 14 of them coming in the first half. Tyler Smith added 12 points and 10 rebounds. J.P. Prince came off the bench to add 12 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists. JaJuan Smith, who went 6 for 6 from 3 and scored 32 points Wednesday night against Arkansas, was 0 for 6 beyond the arc vs. Georgia and 1 for 7 overall. He finished with just 2 points.
Gaines was nearly the whole show for the Bulldogs, finishing with 23 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. Woodbury added 14 points, Swansey and Price 10 each.
Basically, the Dawgs doggedly stuck with their 2-3 zone, and Tennessee never hit enough outside shots to exploit it. Lofton was 6 for 12 from 3-point range but his teammates were a combined 1 for 12.
"They played 40 minutes of zone, and we normally lick our chops against zone," Pearl said. "But we needed somebody other than Chris to shoot well from the perimeter. JaJuan just didn't have it tonight."
The Vols return to action Wednesday night, hosting Auburn at 7:30.