10. 2006 - Tennessee 75 Kentucky 67 (Lexington)
The conclusion to the Chris Lofton Trilogy on this countdown: we've looked at his most famous shot (Texas) and his greatest game (Memphis), but it was his greatest three point performance that gave the Vols a rare win in Lexington. Rupp Arena opened in 1976, and the Vols play there annually. Tennessee has beaten Kentucky in Rupp in 1977, 1979, 1999, and 2006. That's it. So this one was truly special.
It was also special because at this point in Pearl's first year, the Vols were 16-3 (7-1) and winners of five straight, and you just kept waiting for it to end. Because surely it had to, right? We couldn't really be that good, and certainly weren't good enough to beat Kentucky in Lexington.
But against his home state, Lofton wouldn't be denied. #5 dropped 7 of 10 from beyond the arc, finishing with 31 points and 7 rebounds. He made everything, even when Rajon Rondo tried kicking him in the face. He pushed the Vols to a ten point lead in the first half, and even when Kentucky came back and even took the lead like we all knew they would, Lofton still had answers. With the Vols up 66-65 with 2:30 to play, Lofton scored the game's next seven points, including an and-one that sealed the deal. A win of any kind in Rupp is a once-per-decade event. But getting it from a performance like this from a Kentucky kid? Even better.
9. 2007 NCAA Second Round - (5) Tennessee 77 (4) Virginia 74
You can drive yourself crazy playing the "what if" game, but consider this: the '07 Vols lost three of four in late January when Chris Lofton went down with an ankle sprain. With Lofton on the floor, they were 23-8 with wins over six ranked teams. If the Vols don't blow the Sweet 16 against Ohio State, I have no doubt that they bust up Memphis again in the Elite Eight and make the Final Four. This Tennessee team was capable of beating anyone they faced when they were hot from three.
That included Virginia in the second round - the Cavs were up ten at the under four in the first half, and Tennessee was struggling. But the Vols got it down to just three points at the break, giving ourselves a chance. Then the Vols exploded out of the locker room to take a nine point lead - a nineteen point swing in thirteen minutes - and we all thought it was over.
To Virginia's credit, they fought back. The UVA backcourt of J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary combined for 45 points, and the Cavs got it within one possession in the final two minutes. But Chris Lofton went six of six at the free throw line, never letting UVA get closer than three. Singletary had a three at the buzzer to tie it, but missed, and the Vols were through to the Sweet 16 for the second time in school history, and the first time in seven years.
8. 2007 - Tennessee 86 #4 Florida 76 (Knoxville)
This wasn't a game, it was a celebration.
With Pat Summitt dressed as a cheerleader and singing Rocky Top and Peyton Manning delivering the pregame speech, the outcome was a forgone conclusion. The Vols swept the eventual National Champion Gators the year before, and Florida's payback in Gainesville came with Lofton on the bench. We knew we could beat these guys. We just dind't know it would be like this.
Florida led 17-16 with 13:50 to play in the first half when Tennessee unleashed the run of runs: 17-0 in five and a half minutes. On the eventual National Champions.
It got better. The Vols led by 19 at the break and promptly opened the second half with an 8-0 run. Though Florida would cut it to eight at one point, the Vols never let them get any closer. Lofton had 21, Juanny had 16, and Dane Bradshaw added a 10-6-5 on senior day.
7. 2010 - #17 Tennessee 74 #2 Kentucky 65 (Knoxville)
This one gets the bump over the last one because even though that Gator team did win the title eventually, we were the third team to beat them in four nights during their late February slide. This Kentucky team lost in the Elite Eight, but the day this game was played they were 27-1. Which means, with apologies to UMass, Bruce Pearl owns victories over John Calipari's two most talented teams.
It wasn't complicated: dare Kentucky to shoot threes and hope for the best. And on this day, we got the best: 2 for 22 from the arc for the Wildcats, which helped the Vols explode to a 19 point lead with 14 minutes to play. When Cameron Tatum hit the three that gave UT their biggest lead, I turned around to all the chatty Cat fans behind me in the upper deck and gleefully gave them throat slash gesture...and immediately thought, "...too soon?"
Definitely. UK ran off an 11-0 spurt to put themselves back in it, then kept coming and coming like they always do, tying it 65-65 with 2:13 to play.
But that was all the ammo UK had in its gun, and after J.P. Prince scored inside to give the Vols the lead back, Scotty Hopson hit one of his biggest shots, a three late in the shot clock to put the Vols up five with 41 seconds to play. Then, believe it or not, Prince went 4 of 4 at the free throw line to ice it. They were the heroes of the day: 20 for Prince, 15 for Hopson. This win made Pearl and Calipari all square at 4-4; sadly, Johnny C won the last three. But since we basically beat the 2011 NBA All Rookie Team - a feat only three teams accomplished - I'll certainly take this one.
6. 2006 - Tennessee 95 #6 Texas 78 (Austin)
Anyone who says they saw this coming is a liar. So are some of the people who'll swear to this day they even watched it.
On December 17, 2005 we were still sulking over our football team, which was going nowhere for the holidays after losing to freaking Vanderbilt. No one cared that Bruce Pearl's young basketball team had beaten ETSU, Louisiana-Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky, Murray State, and Appalachian State, all at home. And the sentiment among most of the fans who were paying attention was, "At least this game will show us exactly how much work we have to do."
So before we all knew about Chris Lofton or even who JaJuan Smith was, before you knew about Pearl's press and the chaos it led to, and back when you still believed that Dane Bradshaw was the scholarship that should've gone to Lee Humphey...Tennessee walked into Austin with zero expectations, and absolutely throttled the Longhorns.
It was totally surreal to watch, because at no point could you fall back on the "I knew it!" vibes - this one was as shocking to Tennessee fans as it was to Texas fans, if not moreso. The Vols went up 19 in 9 minutes.
Start watching this at the 12 minute mark and watch JaJuan Smith go from walk-on to superstar in one minute with two of the most impressive back-to-back threes I've ever seen. Those two shots, which put the Vols up 16, served official notice: Tennessee was for real, and Texas was simply in the way.
The Vols shot 12 of 24 from 3 in this game - Lofton and Juanny went 9 of 16 combined. Up 20 at halftime, sometimes the Longhorns would make a run in the second half, and you'd be like, "Uh oh, they've got it down to...wait, no, we're still up 14." This game was the initial shock to the heart of Tennessee Basketball. The next game on our countdown brought it back to life.
See you tomorrow for the top five.