NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Pat Summitt and Tennessee began their bid for another Southeastern Conference tournament championship a day earlier than usual.
Shekinna Stricklen scored 14 of her 16 points in the second half, and the Lady Vols (No. 24 ESPN/USA Today, No. 19 AP) pulled away for a 68-49 win over Alabama on Thursday night in the first round. This was Tennessee's first appearance on opening day at this event since 1997 -- the Lady Vols missed out on a bye after struggling a bit during the regular season.
They trailed 31-30 at halftime against Alabama before rallying for their 35th straight win over the Crimson Tide.
"We talked about what we had to do -- we had to take care of the basketball, and we had to have a different sense of urgency," Summitt said. "Sometimes this team is far too laid back for my liking."
The Lady Vols (21-9) went on a 12-0 run to start the second half. Kelley Cain scored five points during that decisive stretch, and Stricklen capped the run with a 3-pointer.
Alabama (13-17) never pulled closer than seven points after that. Freshman Ericka Russell led the Crimson Tide with 18 points.
Stricklen made a pair of 3-pointers that put the Lady Vols ahead 61-45 with just over six minutes remaining.
"Intensity was higher," Stricklen said. "We just got it going in the second half."
Nobody played more than 28 minutes for Tennessee, which needs to win four times in four days to earn a record 14th SEC tournament title.
"I was mindful of, tomorrow we had to play another game," Summitt said. "But first thing's first: We had to win this one."
Tennessee lost five SEC games during the regular season for the first time. As a result, the Lady Vols were denied a bye.
In 1997, Tennessee lost in the SEC tournament semifinals -- then went on to win the national championship. That was the start of a 46-game winning streak.
Russell made two early 3-pointers sandwiched around a driving three-point play, giving the 12th-seeded Crimson Tide a 9-2 lead. Tennessee didn't take its first lead until Glory Johnson's two free throws made it 21-20.
"We made some shots in the first half," Alabama coach Wendell Hudson said. "Of course, Tennessee went on a roll there. Once they got started making shots, it was the difference in the basketball game."
The fifth-seeded Lady Vols will face fourth-seeded Florida on Friday night.
Stricklen added six rebounds and seven assists for Tennessee. Cain scored 12 points with six rebounds and seven blocks, and Johnson added 11 points and seven rebounds. All three players are freshmen.
"I always go back and think, 'Would I rather have talent or experience?'" Summitt said. "I'd rather have talent, but right now they should be a little more experienced than they play sometimes."
The Lady Vols withstood an 0-for-7 shooting night from sophomore Angie Bjorklund.
Tennessee outrebounded Alabama 44-29 and held the Crimson Tide to 30 percent shooting. Alabama went 7-of-32 from the field in the second half, including 3-of-14 from 3-point range.
Alabama trailed 30-25 before Varisia Raffington made a 3-pointer while being fouled for a four-point play. Dedrea Magee then scored just before the buzzer to give the Crimson Tide a one-point lead heading into halftime.
"We had nothing to lose and we just wanted to come out and play hard," Russell said.
Alabama then went nearly five minutes without scoring at the start of the second half.
"Coach said at halftime the last thing we wanted to do was go home tomorrow," Cain said.