Lofton ends Vols' career with 28 points in rout of South Carolina

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Jordan Howell called it a "storybook ending." JaJuan Smith said it was "a dream come true."

"We came from the bottom. We're SEC champs, now," Chris Lofton said.

No. 4 Tennessee closed the regular season with an 89-56 victory over South Carolina on Sunday, and the three Volunteers seniors -- whose freshman team went 14-17- finally got to celebrate a Southeastern Conference regular-season title.

Lofton scored 28 points for Tennessee (28-3, 14-2), hitting six 3-pointers, and Smith fouled out with 17 points and four 3s, receiving a hearty standing ovation.

Tennessee fans engaged in a delayed celebration of the Vols' first outright SEC title since 1967, which the team won Wednesday with a win over Florida.

A new championship banner was unveiled in Thompson-Boling Arena while orange and white streamers dropped from the ceiling and the players cut down one of the nets.

When asked if he ever thought he'd be a part of a conference championship, Smith smiled.

"Asleep? Yes. Awake, no," he said.

Despite all of the pomp and circumstance, the Vols said they still have several more goals for the season. First is winning the SEC tournament title next weekend.

And then?

"We want to win a national championship," Howell said.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said his team needed the win over South Carolina and will need a strong showing in the SEC tournament to claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"Everything is now designed to get us to San Antonio, Texas, for the Final Four," he said. "The thing that we can do to help make it happen is to win the SEC tournament."

The 33-point margin over South Carolina couldn't have hurt.

It was the worst of the season for the Gamecocks (13-17, 5-11), who suffered their second worst defeat when the Vols won 80-56 in Columbia in January.

South Carolina coach Dave Odom announced less than a week after the first loss to Tennessee that he would retire after a 22-year head coaching career at the end of the season.

Tennessee led by one at halftime in this game, but used 61.8 percent shooting to take over.

The Vols held a 40-39 lead a minute into the second half when they went on a 9-0 run. Duke Crews scored off a missed free throw by Tyler Smith to give Tennessee a 49-39 lead with 16:34 left.

"I don't know, maybe I kept them in the locker room a little too long at halftime," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "We came out colder than the frigid Smoky Mountain air, and we just couldn't make a shot."

A four-minute scoring drought by South Carolina allowed Tennessee to add some breathing room in the second half. A jumper by Tyler Smith gave the Vols a 64-43 lead with 9:04 left.

Both teams were hot from behind the arc in the first half, with South Carolina hitting 6-of-12 attempts and Tennessee nailing 6-of-13.

Mike Holmes led South Carolina with 15 points.

The Vols led by as many as eight twice in the half, the second time coming on two free throws by Crews to give Tennessee a 25-17 lead with 10:23 left before halftime.

But Tennessee couldn't manage to shake South Carolina, which whittled down the Vols' lead and tied the game at 35 with 1:50 left before the break.

South Carolina, which averages the fifth-fewest turnovers per game in the nation at just over 10, had that many by halftime and finished with 16.

Tennessee outrebounded South Carolina 49-34.

"Pretty bad. I don't even know how to describe it," South Carolina forward Evaldas Baniulis said.