Date story published: Wednesday, February 8, 2006
As if this hadn't already been a difficult season, a perfect basketball storm rocked Kentucky basketball last night.
Not only did UK lose what Coach Tubby Smith had said was "a game we have to have," the recruit that was spurned by the Cats largely did the deed.
Kentuckian Chris Lofton scored a career-high 31 points to lead Tennessee to a 75-67 victory over Kentucky. That dropped UK to 15-8 overall and, more importantly, 5-4 in the Southeastern Conference.
Tennessee, which was picked to finish fifth in the Eastern Division in a pre-season media poll, improved to 17-3 overall and a division-leading 8-1.
"To do special things, you have to have special players and special performances," Tennessee first-year coach/miracle worker Bruce Pearl said. "Obviously, you saw one tonight from Chris Lofton.
"When you play a great team, your best player has to rise to the occasion because everybody has a tough matchup. Chris Lofton did that."
Playing uphill all night, Kentucky took a 63-62 lead on Ravi Moss's three-pointer with 5:55 left. Who knew this would be UK's last basket until Tennessee conceded Rajon Rondo's layup with 17 seconds left?
Randolph Morris, who led Kentucky with 20 points and seven rebounds, took only one shot the final 7:26. In that time, UK missed six of seven three-pointers.
When asked if that was the plan against a Tennessee team that started only one player taller than 6-foot-7, UK Coach Tubby Smith said, "No. We were running plays to throw the ball inside. They were doing a good job shutting down the inside. I thought we had some looks inside. I thought if we went back there and were a little more patient ... (his voice trailed off)."
Tennessee took the lead for good when Major Wingate, that one starter taller than 6-7, made a layup with 2:29 left.
Then Lofton took over. The first of his three straight baskets down the stretch was a killer. He knifed into the lane in transition, then put up an 8-foot touch shot under make-or-break pressure. It swished.
"The difference between a great one and a good one are the guys who can make plays like that," Pearl said.
The shot put Tennessee ahead 68-65 with 1:39 left. Two more Lofton baskets, the second a fast-break three-point play in which the Maysville native hit a layup while being fouled by Moss, gave the Vols a 73-65 lead with 21.4 seconds left.
"He just killed us," Smith said of Lofton.
UK fans probably considered it a suicide. So did Smith. When asked if he regretted the decision not to offer Lofton a scholarship, the UK coach said, "Yeah."
When a reporter followed up by asking whether the UK coach had a "little or a lot" of regret, Smith snapped, "I said yes."
The loss was historic for Kentucky, which earlier lost home games to Vanderbilt and Alabama to start the SEC schedule. It marked the first time since 1988-89 -- the season of Eddie Sutton's program meltdown -- that Kentucky lost three SEC home games. That had happened only four previous times in the proud history of UK basketball: 1973-74, 1966-67 and 1962-63.
Lofton's shooting propelled Tennessee to a 39-36 halftime lead. He took a while to get going. Hounded by Rajon Rondo, Lofton got off only one shot in the first 9:35. Tennessee trailed most of that period, by as many as five points twice.
Pearl wasn't worried. "I was too busy hollering at what he wasn't doing defensively," the UT coach said. "I don't worry about him offensively."
Then Lofton hit his first basket, a three-pointer, with 10:25 left. That reduced an 18-14 UK lead to a point. He hit two more shots from beyond the arc in the next two minutes.
Tennessee extended its first-half lead to as much as 10 points and didn't trail again until the Moss three-pointer with 5:55 left.
"I don't think Kentucky ever got ahold of the game," Pearl said. "We did a pretty good job of playing at our pace most of the time."