KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)—Chris Lofton is tired and sore. It’s been that kind of week for him and his fellow Volunteers.
Tennessee hung on to beat Kentucky 63-60 on Sunday, in a week that included the Vols’ first No. 1 ranking in school history on Monday and a loss to No. 18 Vanderbilt on Tuesday.
“That’s college basketball,” Lofton said. “It’s something we have to deal with and get over.”
The Vols have played three straight games against their biggest rivals, including a win over then-No. 1 Memphis, and needed the win over Kentucky to stay atop the Southeastern Conference.
“Altogether, I think it was a great week for us, even though we lost our No. 1 spot,” Tennessee forward Tyler Smith said. “We’re still happy with where we’re at.”
With one more win, Tennessee (26-3, 12-2) will capture the SEC East Division and a share of the conference title. But the Vols are trying to earn their first outright SEC regular season championship in 41 years.
All of that was put in peril when the Vols squandered a big early lead against Kentucky (16-11, 10-4). Lofton scored 14 points, including a jump shot with 1:15 left, as Tennessee hung on to avoid consecutive losses for the first time this season.
Derrick Jasper hit a 3-pointer to cut the Vols’ lead to 63-60, but Jasper and Joe Crawford both missed 3-point shots in the final 20 seconds that would have sent the game to overtime.
“I thought it was in,” Crawford said of his shot. “There was no question in my mind.”
Tennessee held a 34-27 halftime advantage after leading the entire first half, but Kentucky tied it at 41 when Ramon Harris hit a jumper while being fouled by Duke Crews.
Harris hit the free throw to put the Wildcats up 42-41 with 13:54 left.
The teams then traded the lead until Ramar Smith dunked the ball to put Tennessee up 58-57 with 4:24 left. The Vols held onto the lead the rest of the game.
“We showed enough poise down the stretch to win,” said Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who donned his bright-orange sports coat for the game.
Tyler Smith finished with 15 points for the Vols.
Ramel Bradley led Kentucky with 17 points. Perry Stevenson added 13 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, and Harris finished with 12 points.
“It’s a tough loss. We had the chance of winning against a very good team on their home court,” Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. “We played extremely hard, but we didn’t get it done.”
Always a bitter rivalry between bordering states, Tennessee added pomp and circumstance by honoring former All-American Ernie Grunfeld and retiring his No. 22 at halftime.
The rivalry between the Vols and Wildcats thrived when Grunfeld and fellow All-American Bernard King played in the late ’70s, during the days of the so-called “Ernie & Bernie Show.”
The Vols also dubbed the Sunday game Lofton’s senior night, and hung 408 tiny ‘3’ signs around the rim of the upper deck at Thompson-Boling Arena to represent each of his career 3-pointers entering the game.
Lofton has averaged more than 19 points against Kentucky, who snubbed the Maysville, Ky., native coming out of high school.
He hit his only 3 of the game on two attempts with 13:38 left in the first half.
Tennessee jumped out to a quick 11-2 lead, and the Vols built the advantage to 20-5 on a putback shot by Ramar Smith with 11:22 left before halftime.
Tennessee managed only two free throws in 3 1/2 minutes as Kentucky scored nine points.
Bradley hit a jumper with the shot clock expiring to cut Tennessee’s lead to 32-27 with 1:16 left in the half.
The Wildcats were playing without freshman phenom Patrick Patterson, who scored 20 points in their 72-66 win over Tennessee in January.
X-rays revealed Friday that Patterson, who was averaging more than 16 points a game, had a stress fracture in his left ankle and will miss the rest of the season.
“With Patrick going down, everyone had to step up and do a little bit more,” Bradley said. “Everyone stepped up and did their job and we had a chance.”