Dave Odom, coaching his final game for the Gamecocks, noted that Lofton's game-winner came courtesy of "a road-block screen – but a legal screen – that put the ball in the hands of the best shooter in the history of the league."
Lofton's shot would've been meaningless, however, if not for some stellar work by teammate Tyler Smith down the stretch. Held scoreless for 29 minutes, he produced 13 points in the game's final 10½ minutes – including 11 consecutive UT points from the 5:58 mark to the 0:38.7 mark.
Wayne Chism wasn't too shabby, either. The 6-9 Vol sophomore dominated on the inside by posting a career-high 23 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocked shots.
Ultimately, the combination of black shoes, Lofton, Tyler Smith, Chism, JaJuan Smith and 73-percent second-half shooting proved to be just enough for the fourth-ranked Vols to subdue the upstart Gamecocks, who had lost two regular-season meetings by scores of 80-56 (Jan. 12 in Columbia) and 89-56 (last Sunday in Knoxville).
The difference this time? Defense ... Tennessee didn't play any. The 87 points represented South Carolina's season high against SEC opposition. In addition, the Vols forced just 8 turnovers (down from 16 last Sunday) and allowed the Cocks to shoot 47 percent from the field (up from 34 percent last Sunday).
South Carolina guards Devan Downey (26 points) and Zam Fredrick (24 points) carved up Tennessee's fullcourt and halfcourt defenses like a Thanksgiving turkey. Downey managed just 2 points last Sunday in Knoxville on 1-of-9 shooting. Fredrick had 9 points last time on 4-of-9 shooting.
"We were unable to guard their guards off the bounce," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said of Friday's game.
Tennessee (28-3) also helped Carolina (14-18) hang around by committing 13 second-half turnovers. Still, Pearl saw some positives in the performance.
"Don't be too hard on the Vols," he said. "We shot 57 percent. We had 35 field goals, on which we had 27 assists. We played awfully unselfishly.... From an offensive efficiency standpoint, you can't ask for much more."
Tennessee established a fast tempo in the game's opening minutes, raced to a 19-8 lead and appeared headed for another lopsided victory. But back-to-back 3s by Fredrick ignited a 32-20 run that gave South Carolina a 40-39 lead with 54 seconds left to halftime.
Tennessee led 41-40 at the break but Carolina surged to a 55-51 lead 6½ minutes into the second half, and the game was a nail-biter thereafter.
Conventional wisdom held that the Gamecocks, coming off a taxing 77-73 defeat of LSU on Thursday, would wilt in the face of Tennessee's depth and fullcourt pressure. It never happened, however.
"They shot a boat-load of free throws (making 21 of 30) and kept stopping the clock, which gave them an opportunity to rest," Pearl said. "So we fouled 'em too much and didn't get fouled enough ourselves."
In spite of some glaring imperfections, Tennessee came down to the final seconds needing one shot to win the game. Even on one of his worst shooting days ever, Lofton delivered it.
"As a shooter, you always think the next one's going in," he said. "It didn't look good up to that point but Coach called my number, and I had confidence it was going to go in.
"And it did."
Pearl didn't care that Lofton was 1 for 9 from 3 to that point. He wanted the ball in the All-American's hands with the game on the line.
"It really didn't have anything to do with how he was shooting going into that shot," the coach said, smugly adding: "Maybe if he was super-duper fatigued because of defense ...
"But I don't think any of our guys were terribly tired after their defensive effort, so I thought he was still fresh to make that shot."
ARKANSAS NEXT FOR VOLS
Arkansas earned the berth opposite Tennessee in Saturday's SEC semifinal round by beating Vanderbilt 81-75.
Darian Townes and Gary Ervin scored 18 points each for the Razorbacks (21-10), who outrebounded Vandy 44-22.
Alex Gordon scored 22 points and Shan Foser 14 for the Commodores, who slip to 26-7.
Tennessee beat Arkansas 93-71 at Knoxville during the regular season.
The UT-Arkansas tipoff has been switched from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Weather damage at The Georgia Dome forced SEC officials to move Friday night's Kentucky-Georgia game to noon on Saturday.
The revised SEC Tournament schedule is as follows:
12 - Kentucky vs. Georgia
6 - Tennessee vs. Arkansas
8:30 - Mississippi State vs. UK-Georgia winner
3 - Championship Game