Chris Lofton became Tennessee’s all-time leading 3-pointer shooter and scored a game-high 24 points in leading the Vols to an 86-73 win over UNC-Asheville on Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
But Lofton, like many others, had more interest in talking about the Bulldogs’ 7-foot-7, 360-pound center, Kenny George, after the game.
Had he ever seen anything like him?
“Yeah, King Kong,’’ Lofton said. “… it’s like he’s playing on a Fisher Price goal.’’
George scored only seven points while pulling down 13 rebounds, but he blocked four shots and altered several others.
“He made me look like a point guard,’’ said UT freshman center Brian Williams, who goes 6-10, 270. “He can change the game like I’ve never seen before.’’
Fortunately for the 12th-ranked Vols (10-1), the Bulldogs (8-3) fell behind early and never got close enough to pose a serious threat.
In running its home-court win streak to 23, UT opened the game with a 9-0 run and didn’t allow a field goal until the 15:22 mark.
Lofton became UT’s career leader in 3-pointers when he hit his second of the game with 12:15 left in the half to put the Vols up 20-6.
The Thompson-Boling Arena crowd of 21,001 gave Lofton a standing ovation during the ensuing timeout.
“Did they? Man, I didn’t even see it on the bench,’’ said Lofton, who with 349 passed Allan Houston (346) on UT’s list and trails the SEC’s all-time leader Pat Bradley by 17.
“I have to give credit to a lot of my teammates because they were the ones who got me the ball,’’ Lofton said. “It is a great honor, but I just want us to win.’’
Tennessee coasted to a 42-26 halftime lead, scoring 15 points off 10 UNC-Asheville turnovers.
The Vols led by as many as 27 points in the second half, going up 64-37 on J.P. Prince’s dunk off a Lofton alley-oop pass with 13:52 remaining.
The 6-8 Prince, who had a career-high 13 points and seven assists in his second game since becoming eligible, said he’s already comfortable in the Vols’ scheme.
“I just try to take advantage of whatever the defense gives me,’’ said Prince, a former point guard at Arizona who plays wing for UT. “Most of my assists were just simple passes after reading the defense.’’
Once George re-entered the game in the second half, there was nothing easy about scoring.
UT missed eight consecutive shots after Prince’s dunk, and UNC-Ashville rallied to 69-58 on K.J. Garland’s jumper with 8:02 left.
When Williams scored with seven minutes remaining, it marked the Vols’ first field goal since Prince’s dunk and gave UT a 71-58 lead.
The Bulldogs cut it to 76-67 when Garland scored two of his team-high 22 points on a drive with 3:17 left, but Lofton answered with a jumper to give the Vols a double-digit lead for good.
“We play best when everyone contributes, and we had about three or four guys really have off-nights,’’ Pearl said. “It’s hard to play your best basketball when that’s the case.
“Asheville is a good team that will have a good year and compete for their league (Big South) title. If you’re going to play teams from these conferences, play the teams that will compete for their league titles and give you a good run.’’
Tennessee next plays at 2 p.m. Saturday in Cincinnati against Xavier (8-2) before a cross-country road trip to Seattle where it meets No. 18 Gonzaga (8-2) on Dec. 29.
The Vols’ next home game is Jan. 9 against Ole Miss, which at 8-0 joins Vanderbilt as the SEC’s final undefeated teams.
“We’re prepared to see where we’re at right now,’’ said Pearl, who’s 22-0 in non-conference home games. “This is another step-up situation for us.’’
Prince’s Take: Prince said his first experience playing a game in Thompson-Boling is one he won’t forget.
“The fans don’t realize how much they really help,’’ said Prince, who had to sit out the fall term after transferring from Arizona. “It really gets our adrenaline going.’’
Prince did his part to excite the fans, scoring his first basket of the game on a reverse dunk off a JaJuan Smith alley-oop pass.