Tennessee Saves the Best for Last

Times Staff Writer

Chris Lofton had been missing shots all day. Short ones, long ones, hurried ones, measured ones.

He missed off the front of the rim and off the backboard. He bricked a layup, clanked a three-pointer. Of the 13 shots the Tennessee guard had taken until there were 2.9 seconds left in an NCAA tournament first-round game against Winthrop on Thursday, Lofton had missed eight.

But the 14th, that was a beauty. When it seemed 15th-seeded Winthrop was poised to upset the second-seeded Volunteers, Lofton took an inbounds pass a step inside the three-point line in the corner and made a fall-away jump shot.

The Eagles had only four-tenths of a second left for a game-tying shot and almost made it when a length-of-the-court inbounds pass bounced off the backboard and into the hands of Craig Bradshaw. But his hurried layup missed badly and Tennessee escaped with a 63-61 victory in its Washington Regional opener.

Winthrop (23-8) had taken a 61-60 lead on a three-pointer by James Shuler with 3:25 left and seemed ready to become only the fifth No. 15-seeded team, and the first since 2001, to win a first-round game. But the Volunteers (22-7) tied the score on a Dane Bradshaw free throw with 2:42 left.

The two nervous teams combined to miss six shots and commit four turnovers over the next 2:40.

Winthrop Coach Gregg Marshall said it was no surprise that Lofton took and made the last shot.

"People in the Southeastern Conference that see him a lot consider him ... I'm not saying he's a J.J. Redick ... but he's in the same high-rent district," Marshall said. "You need to be standing on his toes when he catches the ball and still he can hit some. He hit a big shot."

The game was close from the start. Tennessee never led by more than six points, Winthrop by no more than three. There were 11 ties and 12 lead changes and the arena was rocking, mostly with Eagle fans who were from Rock Hill, S.C., about a two-hour drive from here.

The Eagles, champions of the Big South, have made the tournament six times in the last eight years but have yet to win a game.

"But we knew they were tough," said Tennessee forward Andre Patterson, a senior who spent his first two years at UCLA and finished Thursday with 12 points, 11 rebounds and great respect for the underdog. "Those guys just kept coming. It was like they thought they should win."

And they might have except for Patterson and his long arms grabbing those rebounds, and Tennessee center Major Wingate, who had a game-high 15 points plus six rebounds. And because Lofton never lost confidence in his shot.

"It was a real gut check for both teams," Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl said. "Both teams were physically exhausted at the end of that game."

Pearl coached Wisconsin Milwaukee to two upsets in last year's NCAA tournament, upsets that helped Pearl move up to the SEC and Tennessee.

"I know what it's like to be the underdog," Pearl said. "This win would have meant everything to them. But it means a lot to us too."

Wichita State 86, Seton Hall 66 -- With their fans holding signs impugning the knowledge of CBS broadcaster Billy Packer, who denigrated the strength of Wichita State's Missouri Valley Conference after it received four NCAA bids, the seventh-seeded Shockers (25-8) were ahead of the Big East's Pirates by 10 points only five minutes into the game and never trailed.

Shocker Coach Mark Turgeon said he didn't feel his team needed to play for the pride of the conference.

"But," Turgeon said, "I do think we've gotten some scrutiny that we don't deserve. All our conference did was go out and win games. We went out and scheduled people and played people on the road. We were smarter than most of America in our scheduling."

Guard Sean Ogirri, who had a four-point play with a three-point shot and free throw in the last two minutes, led the Shockers with 23 points.

"We knew people were doubting us and our conference," Ogirri said, "but we didn't let that get to us."

Tenth-seeded Seton Hall (18-12) got no closer than 11 points in the second half. Wichita State, regular season champions of the Missouri Valley, will play Tennessee on Saturday in the second round.

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