GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP)—Dane Bradshaw was describing his part in Tennessee’s winning play when a replay of it suddenly appeared on the locker room TV.
“Hold on, we’ve got to see this,” he said.
There he was on screen, finding a streaking Chris Lofton with an inbound pass. And there was Lofton, falling away from the basket as he launched a 19-footer over the outstretched arms of defender Torrell Martin.
“It was a good look, but he was all up on me,” Lofton said. “It still felt good.”
His teammates surely felt the same way.
Lofton took that pass with 2.9 seconds left and rattled home a jumper barely inside the 3-point line to help the second-seeded Volunteers avoid a huge upset with a 63-61 victory over Winthrop on Thursday in the first round of the Washington Regional.
“It doesn’t matter how it came, I’m just glad it happened,” Volunteers point guard C.J. Watson said.
Craig Bradshaw missed a shot right before the buzzer that would have tied it for the Eagles (23-8), who remained winless in six trips to the tournament. They were trying to become the fifth 15th seed to record an upset in the first round, and the first since 2001.
Instead, the Volunteers advance to the second round for the first time in six years, where they will face seventh-seeded Wichita State.
“It was a real gut check for both teams,” said first-year Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who led underdog Wisconsin-Milwaukee to two victories in last season’s tournament. “Both teams were physically exhausted at the end of that game.”
The frantic finish capped a heart-pounding game that featured nine ties and eight lead changes, the final one coming on Lofton’s shot. His were the only points in the final 2:42 as both teams squandered chances to advance to the second round.
“We were right there,” Martin said. “It was tied for a good long while, but we went on a drought. It just took one play, and we didn’t make it, they did.”
The Volunteers (22-7) had a couple of opportunities in the final seconds. Watson missed a 3, but they retained possession when Bradshaw chased down a long rebound on the other end of the court. Pearl called a timeout to set up the play, with Dane Bradshaw throwing it in.
The first option was for a lob pass to 6-foot-7 Andre Patterson, but when he was covered, Bradshaw looked for Lofton.
“I thought they were going to come to me the whole time, unless we got an easy shot, of course,” Lofton said.
His was anything but, and after it went in with four-tenths of a second on the clock, the Tennessee players mobbed Watson. Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall used his final timeout, and James Shuler’s long pass bounced off the backboard to Craig Bradshaw.
Replays also showed that the ball hit off a Tennessee player, which should have started the clock, before it got to him. It was a moot point since the hurried shot clanged off the rim, allowing the Volunteers to hang on.
“You can definitely make the case that this was good for us, the way it turned out,” Dane Bradshaw said. “Coach says the teams we play obviously will continue to get better, but the situation we were in won’t get any tougher.”
Major Wingate led Tennessee with 15 points, and Martin finished with 14 points and a career-high 13 rebounds for the Eagles.
Perhaps all those who questioned Tennessee’s No. 2 seed were right—after all, the Volunteers limped into the tournament with four losses in its previous six games. Pearl pointed to a fabulous regular season that ended with a Southeastern Conference East Division title, as well as a sweep of the season series with Florida.
It’s unlikely winning in this fashion will quiet any of those critics.
“We deserved victory,” Pearl said. “It wasn’t like we had to get hit in the mouth to start playing. We were ready to play, and we had to play well.”
Of course, none of that really matters to Marshall and Winthrop. They won the Big South Conference tournament for the sixth time in eight seasons and have little to show for it. Last year, a 10-point loss to Gonzaga ended their season, and now this.
Shuler swished a 3-pointer with about 3 1/2 minutes remaining to give the Eagles their final lead at 61-60, and Bradshaw tied it with a free throw on the other end. The South Carolina school had turnovers on two straight possessions and Lofton missed an ill-advised jumper from way beyond the line for the Vols.
Finally, Craig Bradshaw got a good look to put the Eagles back in front, but his 3-pointer was off, setting up the final sequence.
“I’ve been to postseason play a lot of times, and you’re supposed to have something to say, something intelligent and uplifting to say in the locker room,” Marshall said. “It doesn’t get any easier, I can tell you that.”
Patterson had 12 points and 11 rebounds for Tennessee, and Bradshaw scored 12 on 5-of-17 shooting for Winthrop.