It was a recipe for disaster. A sports conspiracy-theorist’s worst fear. The work of a diabolical mastermind bent on televising an upset of an over-seeded, over-confident team on a losing streak by an under-seeded, no-name school whose time had come.
Too bad Chris Lofton hadn’t read the script.
The game had turned into a defensive struggle, and the drama was building as planned. Senior and team leader C.J. Watson was sitting out extended minutes with four fouls. Coach Bruce Pearl’s spread motion offense wasn’t producing any open looks. Every time that Lofton, the team’s biggest scoring threat, tried to rub a defender off of a screen, he found himself sandwiched between two defenders instead.
With 5:00 minutes left to play and the score tied at 58, Watson finally re-entered the game. Tennessee hit a two, Winthrop hit a three. The teams traded missed opportunities, fouls, and turnovers.
With the game tied at 61 and 21 seconds remaining, Watson scambled around the perimeter awhile before stopping and popping at the top of the key. The shot was too strong, and the long rebound was grasped by six hands: Lofton’s and those of two opponents. Nobody really won this battle, but Lofton at least succeeded in pushing the ball away from the crowd, and Bradshaw ran down and secured the loose ball. Pearl called time out with 2.9 seconds left and possession of the ball.
Pearl made up a play on the spot and diagrammed it for the players. Wingate would later admit some serious confusion. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he said after the game. “Coach Pearl drew up three different diagrams and told me to go some place.” Controlled chaos without the control.
Anyway, Bradshaw positioned himself courtside to inbound the ball. Wingate decided to stand at the near post. Lofton stood at the far post, Patterson was at the top of the key, and Watson was at mid-court. The whistle blew, and all of the players moved at once.
Lofton darted to the free throw line to set a pick for Patterson, who used Lofton to scrape off his defender and headed toward the basket on the far side of the court. For a split second, Patterson was open for a lob next to the basket, but Bradshaw did not see him until Patterson’s defender caught up with him.
Meanwhile, Wingate slid toward the perimeter to set a screen for Lofton, who was continuing around the arc, his man absolutely glued to him and holding him the whole time. Lofton gained the slightest amount of separation from Wingate’s screen and raced toward the corner, looking over his right shoulder for the pass from Bradshaw. Bradshaw tossed the ball to Lofton, who awkwardly twisted and squared up to the basket in two steps. The second foot planted, he executed an amazing, high-arcing fade-away jumper over the outstretched arm of his defender.
Patterson thought it was long. Wingate thought it was short.
Lofton knew it was in.
Vols win, 63-61.
Coach Pearl began his post-game interview by ticking off a few of the more memorable finishes to games in this magical season: Lofton’s steal-and-heave to Bradshaw for a layup against Florida the first time, Bradshaw’s sweet steal-and-spin move to beat Florida the second time, and Lofton’s awkward twisting fade-away jumper with .4 seconds left for the first post-season win in what seems like forever.
Oh, and don’t forget these guys:
- Andre Patterson had a double double;
- Major Wingate will not have to be fed to his snakes after all, as he had one of the best games of his career, going five for eight from the field and five of six on free throws while blocking three shots. Plus, he played solid defense against Winthrop’s Craig Bradshaw, who was a handful all game.
- Jordan Howell, who played heavy and important minutes while C.J. Watson was on the bench with foul trouble.
Bob Kesling’s call of Chris Lofton’s game-winning shot.
Take a look at the picture of the shot just before Lofton lets it fly. Does it look like it has any chance of going in? Winthrop’s Torrell Martin, who defended Lofton on the play, didn’t think so. “It’s a one-in-a-million shot,” he said after the game. “It looked like the ball curved in.”