'Dream' season continues

One by one, they paraded up the ladder Sunday afternoon to snip a piece of the net at Thompson-Boling Arena.

That's what you do when you win a championship. That's what you do when you go 14-2 in the SEC. That's what you do when you finish ahead of Kentucky for the third consecutive year.

After coasting in the first half against South Carolina in the final regular-season home game, the Tennessee Vols ripped through the Gamecocks, 89-56. Then, the celebration began.

Players wore hats that proclaimed the SEC Championship – won the previous Wednesday at Florida – and t-shirts that said: ``SEC Champions – 41 years in the making.''

Four times since 1967, Tennessee shared the SEC regular-season title. But that's nothing like claiming sole possession.

That drought ended as another streak began. Tennessee hasn't lost a home game in two years. The Vols have won 32 in a row at TBA.

And when the 32nd victim exited stage right, UT rejoiced. A banner was unfurled, orange and white confetti dropped, a ladder was stationed under the goal near the student section, and the nets came down ever so slowly as the Vols savored the moment.

Initial honors went to Wayne Chism, then Chris Lofton, then Jordan Howell, then JaJuan Smith, then Ryan Childress, then Ramar Smith, then Duke Crews, then Josh Tabb, then Steven Pearl, then Tyler Smith, then Brian Williams.

When Williams started up, three teammates held the steps, jokingly concerned that his bulk might shatter the ladder. Williams went along, flashing a huge smile.

Each coach took his turn until the architect of Tennessee's amazing basketball revival – Bruce Pearl – took the scissors and ascended to a thunderous ovation. More than 10,000 fans stayed well after the game to watch the ceremony.

The nets wound up around the neck of athletic director Mike Hamilton, who made the brilliant move to hire Pearl.

It was a scene not seen often at Thompson-Boling Arena, at least, not by the men's team.

But this wasn't just about an SEC crown.

It was Senior Night. It was a time to honor Lofton and JaJuan Smith and Jordan Howell.

Fittingly, Lofton and Smith put on a show. Lofton scored 28 points and JaJuan 17. They not only combined for 45 points but had 10 3-pointers and seven steals. Smith added a team-high nine rebounds, four assists and three steals.

It's amazing to think that few people wanted either one. UT beat out Valparaiso and Arkansas State for Lofton, shunned by home state schools Louisville and Kentucky. Smith had offers from East Tennessee State and Middle Tennessee State. He walked on at Tennessee. He walks away as the best walk-on in UT hoops history.

As you might expect, Lofton left the game with 3:11 left after draining his sixth 3-pointer. His raised his left index finger and the crowd raised the roof, giving him a standing ovation.

A few seconds earlier, JaJuan Smith fouled out, just seconds after he made one of his patented plays – stealing the ball on the wing, driving to the basket, and dishing behind his back to Tyler Smith for a scintillating stuff.

It was the kind of play Smith hopes he is remembered for. He doesn't want to known as just a perimeter shooter.

``I like to get the crowd up off their feet, make great passes and play defense,'' Smith said.

Sometimes getting the crowd off its feet has caused Smith problems. Some have called him a hot dog. Some rode his antics for an ill-advised pass off the backboard that backfired at Alabama. And he's been know to fire a behind-the-back pass that found the stands – not the target.

But he's also made some brilliant plays and has been a key component of UT's school-record 28 wins this season and school-record 74 wins (and counting) in three seasons.

His defense Sunday was incredible. He held Carolina's cat-quick point guard Devan Downey – who entered the game No. 3 in the SEC in scoring at 18.9 points – scoreless for the first 31-plus minutes of the game. Downey finished with 2 points on 1-of-9 shooting.

``I just been watching a lot of film on him,'' Smith said. ``He's been a beast in the SEC. I took pride in slowing him down and letting the other four take control of the game.''

Told Downey didn't score for more than 31 minutes, Smith said: ``I was trying to contain him for 40 minutes because he can go off. In nine minutes, he could still put up his numbers.''

Smith's defense didn't go unnoticed by Pearl.

``He's established himself as one of better defensive guards in the league, in the country,'' Pearl said. ``Downey was an opportunity for him to make another statement. Few guys can keep Downey in front of them and JaJuan can. There's something to be said for a guard who can do that. Plus, you add his ability to shoot the basketball. His assist-turnover ratio has improved tremendously, and his ball-handling.

``There are some guys in The League (NBA) that make a living playing defense and making open shots.''

If you think Pearl was making a case for JaJuan Smith, you're right. Maybe it's the stigma of being a former walk-on. Maybe it's the occasional hot-dog play. Whatever the reason, Smith doesn't get his due when it comes to SEC postseason honors.

Pearl figures the same will happen again this week.

``We're going to go to the SEC (tournament) and find why isn't he on this team or that team,'' Pearl said.

Smith has been invited to the senior NBA tryout camp in New Hampshire, Pearl said, letting folks know Pearl is appreciated by the pro scouts, if not his college peers.

But Smith didn't seem too worried about that Sunday. He talked about the thrill of winning the SEC. He talked about the goal of reaching Saturday in the SEC Tournament – something UT hasn't done since 1991. And he talked about the long road he's taken – from an unwanted walk-on who averaged 1.9 points his freshman season to an integral part of UT's success with his long-range shooting, terrific defense and clutch play.

Did he ever think it possible to be SEC champions?

``Asleep, yeah,'' he said, laughing.

``Awake, no,'' he said, more laughter.

``I dreamed it but when I woke up, I never seen it. And just to be (awake) right now … let me pinch myself.''

He pinched his right cheek.

``It's real,'' he said.

And he's got a piece of the net to prove it.


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