CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Slumped in a chair with a white towel covering his face inside Tennessee's locker room, Chris Lofton shed tears as blood from a scrape trickled down his leg.
A few feet away, Jordan Howell, between sobs, changed out of a basketball uniform and into street clothes -- almost certainly for the last time.
And between his two fellow Volunteers seniors, JaJuan Smith coerced a smile early Friday morning and insisted he still would be a source of leadership for Tennessee basketball moving forward.
Howell, Lofton and Smith -- forever linked for helping make Vols basketball relevant again -- saw their careers end with a 79-60 loss to Louisville Thursday night in the Sweet 16.
"It's been great. I'm glad to be in the situation I was in, and it's hard that it's over for me," Lofton said. "It's over."
The defeat snuffed out the most successful season in Tennessee history, but will not tarnish the legacy of the winningest senior class in 99 years of Volunteers basketball.
"The seniors have established great tradition here at Tennessee," said junior Ryan Childress, who graduates in May but will enroll in graduate school to rejoin the team next year. "They haven't had great basketball since the Ernie (Grunfeld) and Bernie (King) Show. A long time ago is the last time people really remember us being great. And those three seniors, Jordan Howell, JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton, have done things that nobody else in this basketball program has ever done.
"These seniors were great, and Tennessee is very proud of them."
Added head coach Bruce Pearl, "Well, they're the winningest seniors in the history of Tennessee basketball. This team, winning 31 games, beating the No. 1 team (Memphis on Feb. 23) in the country, getting to the Sweet 16 back-to-back has never happened at Tennessee before. We obviously would have liked to have gone another step or two, but you know when you get to this point, you're going up against teams that are very, very talented and very well coached."
Pearl forgot to mention the program's first outright SEC crown in 41 years.
Offering support to sophomore point guard Ramar Smith, JaJuan Smith already had begun to encourage the Vols' underclassmen about their future.
"All these guys, they're great. If I had to do it all over again, I'd take all these guys with me," JaJuan Smith said after scoring 12 points in his final collegiate game. "And if I had to go to war, they'd be right there with me.
"I know this program is not going to downhill since we're gone; it's going to stay on the rise. And I'm just going to be there supporting them. Me and Chris are not gone yet; we're still going to try to be the leaders and keep them going in the right direction."
It is impossible to know what direction UT's basketball program might be headed had athletics director Mike Hamilton not married Pearl's frenetic pace and incessant marketing with a famously mismatched trio of then-freshmen in spring 2005. Lofton, as has been well documented, grew up barely an hour from the University of Kentucky and longed in high school to wear Wildcats blue. Howell's father and uncle both played basketball at Auburn. Smith was a walk-on.
Yet Lofton, who led the Vols with 15 points in his final game but struggled with his shooting, blossomed into an All-American and the SEC's career 3-pointer leader with a relentless work ethic.
And Smith quickly earned a scholarship after being invited to walk-on from McMinn County High School. He then became a defensive stopper, super-sub and this year emerged as an all-around player who flourished as a leader.
Howell had his share of ups-and-downs as a Vol, but he was praised throughout his time in Knoxville for his positive attitude and on-the-floor-coach disposition.
Trying to come to terms with the end of his career, Howell reflected on the friendship and success of this senior class, which won 91 games in four years and claimed the program's first-ever No. 1 ranking last month.
"These are my best friends, and this relationship will last a lifetime with those two," Howell said. "It's cool that we have our place in Tennessee history, I guess. I mean, I wouldn't be up there without Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith. I ride their back kind of into Tennessee history, I guess. �
"We all loved each other when we were out there. We had each other's back, and it was evident in everything. We lose together right now, and we've won together, which is the greatest feeling in the world. We lose together, and we've still got each other's back."
In the process, they got Tennessee basketball back to and beyond levels that just a few years ago hardly seemed possible.
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