March 9, 2008

Lofton makes it a fitting end

Wayne Chism zipped the pass to the top of the key, where Chris Lofton sighted one final 3-pointer inside the renovated house that Lofton helped build.

As quickly as Lofton received the pass, the ball was tracing its arc toward the basket before a Thompson-Boling Arena crowd of 21,734 urging the shot into the cylinder. Splash.

On a day when fourth-ranked Tennessee unveiled its freshly minted 2008 SEC Champions banner and celebrated sole possession of that league crown for the first time in 41 years, Lofton drilled the last of his 16 shots on Senior Day.

"It's a storybook ending, and it should be a storybook ending for Chris the way everything's happened," fellow senior Jordan Howell said. "I know he passed Dale Ellis today (in career scoring with 2,067 points), and he should be mentioned up there with the greats in Tennessee basketball. I'm happy that I was able to play with him."

Most importantly to Lofton, he walked off a winner in an 89-56 victory against South Carolina. The Vols await the LSU-South Carolina winner Friday in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament at Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

He spent a restless Saturday night as prelude to a pair of heartfelt standing ovations both before and after Tennessee's game.

"I really didn't sleep at all last night," said Lofton, who induced the Gamecocks' slumber with a game-high 28 points, including six 3-pointers. "I kept thinking about how this is going to be the last time I'm in this arena for a game. And then when I got here, it was my last shoot-around before a home game. It was different, but it really hasn't sunk it to me yet. But it's getting there.

"It's been great. They gave us all big loud cheers for all three of us. It was great."

Indeed Howell, Lofton and JaJuan Smith were roundly cheered inside the home in which they closed their careers on a 32-game winning streak. The trio was instrumental in the second half of the program's record 28th win, helping ignite a 49-12 scoring binge that ran the Gamecocks out of the gym.

"How many times have I come in here," UT coach Bruce Pearl asked, "and said, 'What a great night for Tennessee basketball?' Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, Jordan Howell - our seniors - played very well and helped make this a great night."

Focused on a deeper run at the SEC Tournament and talking openly about trying to win a national title, Lofton briefly reflected on the remarkable turnaround of a program that four years ago set at 14-17.

"We came from the bottom and now we're SEC Champions," Lofton said. "It's been great. We got better each and every year that I've been here."

...More... To continue reading this article you must be a member. Sign Up Now!