Precisely. Lofton scored 23 points – his best outing since injuring his ankle Jan. 20 against South Carolina – and the Vols needed every one of them to hold off a frantic Wildcat comeback in front of 22,320 screaming fans at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The observers included Bernard King, whose jersey was retired in an emotionally charged halftime ceremony.
Pelted with debris and insults after losing to the Big Blue in 1975 at Lexington, King had vowed that UT would never again lose to the Cats while he was a Vol. Sure enough, he went 5-0 against the Big Blue the rest of his career.
“That’s six in a row for Bernard,” Vol coach Bruce Pearl beamed after the victory.
And that’s three in a row for Tennessee. Homefloor defeats of LSU, Vanderbilt and No. 20 Kentucky have raised the Vol record to 18-8 overall and 6-5 in SEC play.
In addition to King, former Vol stars Ernie Grunfeld and Tom Boerwinkle were on hand. So were longtime UT play-by-play man John Ward, plus former UT coaches Ray Mears and Don DeVoe. No wonder Pearl called it “a great night for Tennessee athletics” and thanked Kentucky for contributing to “a tremendous basketball game.”
It was that, all right. Tennessee forced 10 first-half turnovers en route to a 40-30 intermission lead. The Vols widened the gap to 16 points (51-35) early in the second half and still led 68-55 with 9:30 to play.
Kentucky would not go quietly, however. The Cats made a 13-2 run, closing to 70-68 with 6:21 to play. The Big Blue pulled even at 77-all with 3:54 left but Tennessee stubbornly refused to surrender the lead.
That was due largely to Lofton, a native of Maysville, Ky. He started the game-winning rally by assisting Wayne Chism and Ramar Smith for back-to-back layups as the Vols went up 83-79.
With Tennessee leading 84-81 and half a minute remaining, everyone in the arena knew Kentucky would foul. They also knew the Vols would try to get the ball to Lofton, their best foul shooter.
Three consecutive times Lofton worked free for inbound passes. Three consecutive times he was fouled. The first time he made both free throws, extending the lead to 86-81 with 29.5 seconds left. The second time he made both, producing an 88-83 lead with 11.2 seconds remaining. The third time he made the first only but it provided a four-point lead and sealed the deal with 4.7 seconds left.
Kentucky beat Tennessee in Knoxville a year ago, and Lofton was having a flashback when the Cats scored on 10 consecutive second-half possessions to pull even.
“I was like, ‘Please don’t let this happen again like last year,’” he recalled. “That’s all that was going through my mind.”
Lofton wasn’t the only hero for Tennessee. Freshman posts Duke Crews (18) and Wayne Chism (16) combined for 34 points. They also limited Kentucky’s 6-11 Randolph Morris to 14 points and just one offensive rebound. Dane Bradshaw was scoreless but contributed a game-high 9 assists. JaJuan Smith chipped in 9 points, a team-high 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.
The Wildcats (18-7 overall, 7-4 SEC) got 24 points from Joe Crawford. The junior guard produced 18 of his points in the second half, when UK shot 66.7 percent (20 of 30) from the floor and 58.3 percent (7 of 12) from beyond the arc.
“They made shots,” Pearl said, when asked how Kentucky wiped out UT’s 16-point second-half lead. “They made TOUGH shots.”
So did Tennesse. The Vols hit 54.5 percent after intermission and hung 49 second-half points on a UK defense that allows just 65 points PER GAME.
“Both teams played great defense in the first half,” Pearl noted. “And neither team could stop the other in the second half.”
Kentucky blew Tennessee off the floor in the earlier meeting at Lexington by outscoring the Vols 45-25 in the second half. When the Cats made their big charge this time, however, the Vols were able to withstand it.
“The crowd didn’t quit on us,” Pearl said. “And the kids showed pretty good poise.”
Chris Lofton did the rest.