NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Tennessee’s best intentions overcame its worst tendencies Friday night.
But not without a spirited fight.
The Lady Vols built a 17-point halftime lead on power and poise. Florida erased all but three points of it with pressure and passion.
In the end, Tennessee’s start held up to the finish for a 71-67 victory in the second round of the SEC women’s basketball tournament.
The victory advanced fifth-seed UT (22-9) to a semifinal date with top-seed Auburn (28-2) tonight (TV: FSS, 6:30 p.m.) at Alltel Arena.
“We knew this was going to be a battle, having played them earlier in the season,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said.
The reference was to a 66-57 loss in Gainesville, Fla., on Feb. 8, during which Tennessee squandered a seven-point lead in the final 7½ minutes. At least one Lady Vol said that the loss had a bearing on this victory.
“We just refused to lose this game,’’ freshman guard Briana Bass said. “We were looking for revenge. That was a big, big part of it. We owed this team something.”
Angie Bjorklund, who failed to score in Tennessee’s opening-round victory over Alabama Thursday, scored a game-high 25 points. Her 9-for-15 field goal shooting (6-for-10 on 3-pointers) highlighted UT’s 53.2 percent accuracy (25-for-47).
Shekinna Stricklen added 18 points and Kelley Cain scored 10.
Sha Brooks scored 22 points for fourth-seed Florida (23-7). Marshae Dotson had 20 and Steffi Sorensen scored 10.
The game had just one tie and one lead change. That didn’t do justice to the countless bumps, bruises and floor burns.
Cain landed on Brooks during a rebounding scramble in the first half, leaving the Gators star with a sore neck. Stricklen briefly went to the locker room in the second half with a banged-up left shoulder.
The Lady Vols struck a thunderous blow in opening a 38-21 halftime lead. They were intent on pounding the ball inside and avoiding the 29-8 disparity in free-throw attempts of the first meeting. They achieved their objective — attempting 21 free throws to Florida’s 20. Each team converted 14 attempts. The real bargain of this strategy, though, was buying extra shooting space for Bjorklund.
“It’s a new game and a new day and I just had to work a lot harder to get open shots,’’ Bjorklund said. “I thought our inside presence with Kelley and Alyssia (Brewer) opened things up for me on the outside.’’
Bjorklund scored the last three baskets before the break, including two 3-pointers.
“You can’t put yourself in the position that we did in the first half,’’ Florida coach Amanda Butler said. “And it’s going to be miraculous to be able to come back from that. But we weren’t too far from miraculous because of our fight.”
The Gators’ ravenous full-court press had a hand in 14 second-half turnovers by Tennessee. UT’s guards often resembled staked-out prey in the backcourt. They were pursued and occasionally surrounded by multiple defenders. Stricklen finished with seven turnovers while Bjorklund had four.
“They put on a whole lot of pressure,’’ Bjorklund said. “We were expecting that. Our guards have to do a lot better job of playing with composure under that pressure. We’ll probably see that in the future.”
The Gators methodically devoured Tennessee’s lead, pulling to 60-57 with 3:50 left.
“I kept saying, ‘We have to keep the lead,’ ’’ UT senior forward Alex Fuller said. “I think that was key for us.”
The lead held, thanks to a seven-point flurry that featured two free throws by Cain, another by Johnson and two baskets by Stricklen.
During that stretch, Brooks picked up her fifth foul, preventing a breakaway layup by Johnson with 2:30 left.
The Lady Vols had enough breathing room again to let out a sigh of relief.
Their best intentions had prevailed.