- Mark Schlabach, College Football Reporter
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ATLANTA -- Tennessee trailed South Carolina by one point with 20.8 seconds to go in Friday's quarterfinal game of the SEC tournament in the Georgia Dome.
The Volunteers had the basketball when coach Bruce Pearl called timeout. Was there any question where the basketball was going to go when Tennessee went back on the court?
After setting a back screen for guard JaJuan Smith, senior Chris Lofton ran through another screen and took the basketball on a handoff. He was all alone near the top of the key. After missing eight of his first nine 3-point attempts against the Gamecocks, Lofton nailed his last one with 11.4 seconds to play to give Tennessee an 89-87 victory.
"As a shooter, you always think the next one is going to go in," Lofton said. "It didn't look good at the beginning and up to that point. But I knew coach called my number, and I just had confidence it was going to go in and it did."
The Volunteers, the outright SEC regular-season champions for the first time since 1967, avoided an early-round exit that might have cost them a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
In the process, the Volunteers proved they're much different from Tennessee teams of the past. The Volunteers had lost their last three games in the SEC tournament and had been 0-3 when playing as the top seed in the event.
Too many times in the past, Tennessee folded in games exactly like this one.
But this Tennessee team found a way to win.
"This is the season we've had," Pearl said. "We miss a free throw, Tyler Smith gets a rebound. Wayne Chism makes a 3, Chris makes a play, JaJuan steals the ball and gets a layup. It's just been that kind of a year. I sleep at night knowing we're going to find a way."
The Volunteers have found a way to win 29 times in 32 games because they have so many ways of doing it. When Lofton struggled in the first half, Chism scored 15 of his team-high 23 points. Four Volunteers scored 10 points or more. Three players scored off the bench.
"We play best when everybody contributes," Pearl said.
But there was little debate about which Tennessee player would take a shot when it mattered most, after USC forward Dominique Archie put the Gamecocks ahead 87-86 with a reverse layup with 20.8 seconds to play.
Trailing so late against a team they had beaten by 33 points five days earlier, Pearl called timeout to calm the Vols down.
"I wanted to make sure we got the ball in the right hands and got a productive look," Pearl said.
No hands have been as productive or reliable for Tennessee as Lofton's. He ranks first in SEC history and third in NCAA history, respectively, with 421 career 3-pointers made.
"There are several options on several plays," Pearl said. "[But] Chris was going to get the ball."
And South Carolina coach Dave Odom had little doubt Lofton would make the shot if he got open. When Tyler Smith and Chism set what Odom described as a "roadblock" screen, guard Zam Fredrick had no chance of staying with Lofton.
"He had a stone-cold open look at it," said Odom, who coached his last college basketball game after announcing his retirement earlier this season. "That brings misery to the Gamecocks as he's done so many times."
Pearl said JaJuan Smith was the first option on the play, but the coach knew Lofton would end up touching the basketball, even though he had struggled so much shooting during the game.
"He makes that shot over and over again," Pearl said. "It really didn't have anything to do with how he was shooting going into that shot."
Said JaJuan Smith: "When he gets that look in his eyes, we know to get him the ball. He had it when Coach drew this play up, so we got him the ball. You see what type of player he is. We wouldn't be sitting here smiling if it wasn't for him making big shots time after time."
Would Pearl have relied on any other player in that situation?
"Maybe if [Lofton] was really super-duper fatigued because of defense," Pearl said.
That wasn't a concern on Friday. None of the Volunteers played much defense against the Gamecocks. Fredrick and guard Devan Downey repeatedly beat the Volunteers off the dribble, combining to score 50 points on 16-for-40 shooting. The duo also combined for 10 assists and 6 steals and only 2 turnovers.
The defensive deficiencies might not bode well for Tennessee. Fredrick, a 6-foot junior, transferred to South Carolina before he risked losing his starting job at Georgia Tech to a freshman. Downey, a 5-9 sophomore, started his career at Cincinnati.
The Volunteers surely figure to see better guards if they go far in the NCAA tournament.
"I didn't think any of our guards were terribly tired after their defensive efforts," Pearl said.
At least Lofton still had the legs to make his last shot.
"I think a close game will help us," Pearl said. "I mean, we've got however many games left in the season, and every single one of them is now for a championship. It's sink or swim. It's all do or die."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
Tennessee has not had success in the SEC tournament, and this year's Vols looked to be upset again when Chris Lofton saved the day. That is what's special about this year's Vols, writes Mark Schlabach.