NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Tennessee’s mystery tour rolled into the SEC tournament Thursday night.
The women’s basketball team that has taken unpredictability to new heights this season recorded a few more confounding entries in a first-round game against Alabama.
Guard Angie Bjorklund, UT’s most dangerous sharpshooter and an All-SEC second-team honoree, didn’t make a shot and failed to score for the first time this season.
Meanwhile, forward Glory Johnson, whose field goal percentage has plummeted to 40.2 percent, missed only one shot and had her biggest scoring game in a month.
At least there was no mystery to the outcome. The fifth-seeded Lady Vols (21-9) took care of business, albeit in workmanlike fashion, overcoming a one-point halftime deficit for a 68-49 victory at Alltel Arena.
The victory advanced UT to a second-round game against fourth-seed Florida (23-6) at 7:30 tonight.
“I thought our defense inspired our offense,’’ Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt said.
Holding No. 12 seed Alabama (13-17) to 18 points and 21.9 percent field goal shooting (7 for 32) after the break enabled UT to overcome a 31-30 deficit and finally break free.
Guard Shekinna Stricklen led Tennessee with 16 points. Center Kelley Cain added 12 points and Johnson scored 11, making four of five field goal attempts.
Overall, UT shot 50 percent from the floor (26 for 52).
Alyssia Brewer’s eight rebounds led Tennessee’s 44-29 dominance of the boards.
Cain, who was battling nausea, recorded seven blocks, which tied a Tennessee freshman single-game record.
In mounting a 38-18 charge across the second half, Tennessee was able to share the playing minutes in a suitable fashion for an opening game. No Lady Vol played more than 28 minutes and all 10 played at least 10 minutes.
“I was mindful we have to play another game,’’ Summitt said. “But first things first, we had to win this one.”
Stricklen, who was playing before family and friends from Morrilton, Ark., did the heavy lifting in terms of minutes played, scoring and assists — matching her season high with seven.
“Like I’ve been telling people, I’ve come back home (but) it’s not about me, if I’m going to show up and have a good game, it’s about this team and us playing together and winning,’’ Stricklen said. “The second half was something totally different, the intensity was higher and our defense picked up and everyone was fired up and we just got it going in the second half.”
Well, everyone but Bjorklund. Along with going 0-for-7 from the floor, foul trouble limited her to eight first-half minutes and 17 overall.
“It was just one of those games,’’ she said. “I had some good looks. I think I was just rushing it a little bit.”
As for the foul trouble, “I need to learn to play smarter when I’m in foul trouble but at the same time stay aggressive,” she said.
A trio of UT freshmen helped cover for Bjorklund’s struggles. Johnson had her best scoring game since getting 20 against Georgia on Feb. 5. She scored twice on rebound baskets, part of Tennessee’s 18-10 edge in second-chance points.
“It’s been bothering me because I wasn’t helping my team any,’’ Johnson said of her shooting struggles.
Brewer, who hadn’t scored in the last two games, added eight points.
Guard Briana Bass played 22 minutes, scoring five points, recording three assists and not committing a turnover.
With today’s game in mind, Tennessee’s players began their whirlpool treatments minutes after Thursday’s game ended. Cain, who’s playing with a surgically repaired right knee, didn’t seem overly worried about her recovery.
“We have hard practices after games,’’ she said, “so I think I can handle it.”
If anything, the Lady Vols seemed more concerned about Florida, which beat Tennessee 66-57 on Feb. 8 in Gainesville, Fla.
In a postgame TV interview, Stricklen offered a confident preview: “Same team but different story.”