In the second game, Auburn survived a scare from Kentucky, 62-57. The third game saw Ole Miss sneak past South Carolina, 53-50.
The fourth game finally featured more offense than defense with Arkansas scooting past a stunned Mississippi State team, 80-73.
A total crowd of 5,671 watched the two sessions – which was too bad since the opening day produced four close games that weren't settled until the closing seconds. Attendance should pick up today when the conference's top four seeds take on Thursday's survivors.
GAME ONE: No. 8 seed Florida vs. No. 9 seed Alabama. RESULT: Bama wins, 62-58.
Moody, the head coach of the Crimson Tide for 16 years, will retire at season's end. The game started out as if it would be his last.
Alabama, 14-14, won the tip but turned the ball over on its first possession. Florida senior guard Tamia Williams hit the first bucket of the tournament on a layup, the first three-pointer and then a short baseline jumper to score the Gators first nine points.
Florida, 14-14, threatened to run away with the game, building a 23-9 lead, but then went cold and didn't score for nearly 10 minutes. The two teams were tied 32-32 at halftime when Bama's Monique Bivins nailed a three-pointer as time expired.
Neither team could pull away in the second half, but the Gators managed to lead by six, 56-50, with 5:29 to go. But a missed tip-in and two straight turnovers allowed Bama to tie the game and hold off Florida at the end.
Both teams shot poorly – 32.1 percent for Alabama and 32.8 percent for Florida – but the game was won at the free throw line. Florida, which didn't attempt a free throw in the first half, was 13-16 for the game. Bama was 18-27 from the stripe.
Also, Florida couldn't stop Bivins. She led all scorers with 25 points. Florida was led by Brittany Davis with 16 points followed by Williams with 15.
"Our shots didn't fall, and Alabama went to the free throw line," Florida coach Carolyn Peck said of the game's final five minutes. "I think that was a big part of it."
The Gators have been hurt by injuries and the loss of Bernice Mosby, who recently left the team for personal reasons. Peck said Thursday was the first game in which players adapted well to their new roles. She hopes the Selection Committee for the NCAA Tournament was watching.
"We played well in the beginning of the game, but then Bivins got loose," Peck said. "She's gotten loose on a number of teams this year. She can create her own shot. She is a great player."
Despite the loss, Peck said the Gators should play in the NCAA tourney. Peck cited the team's RPI and strength of schedule.
"People keep asking if I think we will be in the tournament, and I think yes," Peck said. "I think we deserve to be. I definitely think we deserve to be."
But the Gators will have to wait awhile to find out. Meanwhile, Moody faces the daunting task of keeping his team alive in the SEC Tournament. But on Thursday he was just happy to still be playing.
"I'm just really proud of our basketball team for hanging in there and competing hard, especially after the way we came out early," Moody said. "We were tentative and scared."
The fact it might have been Moody's last game didn't occur to him during the game, he said.
"Honest to God that never crossed my mind, and it won't as we're speaking," Moody said. "We have a game (today) against LSU."
Top seed LSU, which finished the regular season unbeaten in the SEC, is rested and waiting. The two teams will open today's session at 1 p.m. LSU beat Alabama 76-51 on Jan. 16 in Baton Rouge.
"Basically, we have to just play," said Bama forward Navonda Moore, who scored 13 points against Florida. "We are out to win. Nothing from LSU, but we are a better team than when we played them earlier."
Bama is, if nothing, very loose and has nothing to lose as the lower seed. The Crimson Tide uncorked 17 three-pointers against Florida and made 10 for a percentage of 58.8.
"I don't know what got into us," Moore said. "He told us in the locker room, ‘Let it fly.' "
"Thank God we got another day," Moody said. "We'll have to play really well, but it's not an impossibility."
GAME NOTES: Bama snapped a six-game losing streak with the win. The Crimson Tide also ended three straight years of first round futility in the SEC Tournament. Freshman guard Lateefah Joye had a career high nine assists. The Gators, meanwhile, have now lost six straight tournament games.
GAME TWO: No. 7 seed Auburn vs. No. 10 seed Kentucky. RESULT: Auburn wins, 62-57.
The good news for Auburn is that it survived to play today. The bad news is two starters, Nicole Louden and Natasha Brackett, had to play 39 and 40 minutes respectively.
Tennessee, the No. 2 seed, awaits the Tigers today at 3:15 p.m.
"This is my first SEC Tournament as a coach," Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. "I learned a lot about it. Everybody comes to play in this tournament. You are fighting for your life here. Kentucky played like it, too."
Auburn twice built leads of 15 points, but the Wildcats wouldn't fold and were within six, 57-51, with a little more than a minute and a half left.
"It was a little too much to overcome," Kentucky coach Mickie DeMoss said. "I was proud of how we fought at the end and made a game out of it."
The Wildcats were led by senior forward Sara Potts, who had 22 points. Freshman center Sarah Elliott had 11 in her first SEC tourney game.
Kentucky evened its record at 15-15, and DeMoss is hopeful that a WNIT bid will be offered. Postseason play would at least extend the collegiate career of Potts.
"I wish I could keep her for two more years," said DeMoss, who is in her second year at Kentucky after spending 18 years as an assistant at Tennessee under Pat Summitt. "She represents what I want the program to stand for."
Auburn is now 16-12, and Fortner said she hoped Thursday's win got the Tigers a NCAA bid.
When asked by reporters, Fortner laughed and said if the committee was reading the media reports she wanted to say: "Yes I think it got us in the NCAA Tournament. Do I think we're worthy of the tournament? Absolutely."
Meanwhile, Summitt will face off against Fortner, who also is a friend. Fortner and DeMoss also are close, and the friendship can make for some awkward moments. During halftime of the first game, DeMoss and Fortner did an interview with Fox Sports, which is broadcasting the first three days of the tournament, while waiting to play their game.
Fortner said there was some "tension between" the old friends, and they wanted to talk, but it's not a good time.
"You just don't really want to chat," Fortner said. "It was a very brief chat, but friendly."
Tennessee assistant coach Dean Lockwood scouted the Kentucky-Auburn game and had to notice, as everyone did, that the Wildcats rattled the Tigers in the second half with a full-court press that nearly wiped out Auburn's lead.
"The full-court press got us out of our offensive rhythm," Fortner said. "They have a very aggressive press, and it gave us some problems in the end."
But Auburn's senior guards, Louden and Brackett, came through with 23 and 18 points, respectively, and Louden hit four straight free throws at the end.
"Natasha and I being leaders of the team, and both good ball handlers, we needed the ball in our hands," Louden said.
"They're so experienced," Fortner said of the pair. "They're great players. They make plays. I have total confidence in them. As long as those two are on the floor I know we've got a shot to win."
Two other players for Auburn, Marita Payne and Louise Emeagi, were not on the floor at crunch time. Both shot poorly, though Payne did collect four blocks and now is the SEC all-time leader with 134. She came in with 130 and needed two to set the record.
"I was hoping I could get the two blocks, but I had a poor individual effort so there is not much to celebrate," said Payne who had two points on 1-6 shooting. "(Today) hopefully I will be coming out with a much more entertaining game and can celebrate (today."
Emeagi had four points on 2-11 shooting. She had 19 points in the 81-71 loss to Tennessee on Jan. 20.
"They both know that we will need them in (today's) game," Fortner said of Payne and Emeagi, and they will be there for us."
GAME NOTES: Kentucky's Sara Potts now has 1,452, placing her No. 8 in the school's record book. Her 3 three-pointers gave her 256 for her career to tie her with former Lady Vol Kara Lawson at No. 8 on the SEC's all-time list. She played all 40 minutes of her final SEC game. Auburn's Nicole Louden got her second career double-double with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
GAME THREE: No. 5 seed Ole Miss vs. No. 12 seed South Carolina. RESULT: Ole Miss wins, 53-50.
South Carolina nearly pulled off the upset of the day but fell short in a last-second scramble for the ball and then couldn't convert a Hail Mary pass as time expired.
It was a miserable game for both teams shooting-wise. Ole Miss, 19-9, shot 27.9 percent and won because it ruled the offensive boards. South Carolina shot 34 percent and lost because it couldn't take care of the ball.
"If you like watching paint dry you probably liked that game," Ole Miss coach Carol Ross said. "It wasn't a beauty on the offensive end. We are certainly happy with the result. Shots were hard to come by. I'm proud of our club finding a way to grind it out and live another day."
That day comes today when the Lady Rebels, 19-9, take on No. 4 seed Georgia at 7 p.m. Lady Bulldogs coach Andy Landers watched the game from press row. He wouldn't have seen much offense, but watching Ole Miss grab 22 offensive boards would worry any coach.
"Getting those rebounds helped us close out the game," said Lady Rebel Amber Watts, who had 16 points.
Ole Miss' Armintie Price had 19 points and 12 rebounds, including six on offense.
"Great job by Ole Miss on the boards, and we knew that would be their strong point, and we wanted to focus on that," South Carolina coach Susan Walvius said. "Going into the game we wanted to take care of the basketball and beat them on the boards, and we did not do that."
South Carolina, the sentimental favorite in Greenville, had 24 turnovers. But still the Gamecocks had a crack at pulling off the upset. Stacy Booker missed on a drive to the basket, and Angela Hunter missed a tip-in attempt when the score was 52-50. Then Ole Miss' Ellen Buchanan made one of two foul shots to put the Lady Rebels up by three. A half-court heave to Hunter fell free, and Ole Miss escaped.
"I was hoping and praying she would catch that ball," Booker said. "She's known in practice to throw up shots that go in."
Booker led South Carolina (8-21) with 12 points and was forced into the point guard position after the Gamecocks lost their backcourt. Point guard Lea Fabbri returned home to Croatia after the death of her father, and Lauren Simms sustained a knee injury that knocked her out of the tournament.
"What a battle for us today," Walvius said. "Our team played hard and worked hard today. … We had plenty of opportunities that we did not take advantage of. We are a team of all freshmen and sophomores with the exception of Olga (Gritsaeva). This team's going to be back."
Ross cited the play of South Carolina as proof that the SEC is the toughest women's basketball conference in the country.
"They're a force to be reckoned with," Ross said. "They're a great example of the strength of this conference. If they're the 12th team I don't think anyone wants to play South Carolina."
GAME NOTES: The Gamecocks hit four three-pointers, extending their streak of a made three-pointer to 118 games, dating back to November 2001. Sophomore forward Melanie Johnson is second on South Carolina's single-season blocks list with 54. Former Lady Vol Teresa Geter, who transferred to South Carolina is No. 1 with 58. Ole Miss' Amber Watts had 11 of the team's 24 first half points. Armintie Price set a career high with eight steals for the Lady Rebels. She also set a career high with 19 free throw attempts but only made seven. Ole Miss guard Carletta Brown went the distance and played 40 minutes.
GAME FOUR: No. 6 seed Mississippi State vs. No. 11 seed Arkansas. RESULT: Arkansas wins, 80-73.
The final game of the first day kept the scoreboard operator a lot busier. Both teams shot well – 50.8 percent for the Lady Razorbacks and 45.8 percent for the Lady Bulldogs.
Afterwards, the coaches couldn't have been more in contrast – an almost giddy Susie Gardner and a very frustrated Sharon Fanning.
Mississippi State jumped out to a 46-35 halftime lead led by senior Tan White, who had 20 points in the game's first 20 minutes and finished with 38. But Arkansas started chipping away and got the lead under 10 with 13:31 left in the game. They pulled ahead 63-62 with 8:17 left and never trailed again.
The Lady Razorbacks were led by Sarah Pfeifer with 23 points and Kristin Peoples with 18. Danielle Allen added 14.
"I was feeling heartache in the first half," Gardner said when Mississippi State built a lead. "I just wanted them (her players) to feel this, to feel what we feel right now. I'm just happy they can feel this way."
Gardner was so happy she laughed when a reporter asked Pfeifer what the coach told the team at halftime, and the sophomore forward had no idea.
"I don't even know," Pfeifer said.
"They don't listen to me," Gardner said.
With Gardner feeding her lines Pfeifer offered that it was a motivational speech from a great coach.
Gardner said the game changed when "everybody just started playing together."
Fanning saw it the same way. She noted the cohesion of Arkansas vs. the frustration her team showed at the end.
"Needless to say I'm very disappointed in our performance down the stretch," said Fanning, who added her team lacked energy and poise. ‘We didn't work together. We didn't show the kind of character and composure as a basketball team that we needed down the stretch."
Mississippi State, 17-11, must now wait to see if the NCAA comes calling.
"Now we have to sit back and wait," Fanning said. "I'm surely hoping we've done enough to get us in, and they'll recognize the strength of this league. We'll just have to see."
Arkansas, 16-12, earned the right to play No. 3 seed Vanderbilt at 9:15 p.m. today. Vandy destroyed Arkansas 78-43 on Feb. 17, and the Lady Razorbacks go into this game with no post player over 6 foot. The Commodores watched Thursday night's game from the stands.
"Vandy was cheering for us a little bit," Gardner said. "They played their whole bench against us" in the previous game.
Gardner also noted that Vandy is the defending tourney champions, and "they know what it feels like to be here on Sunday."
For now Gardner is just happy her team knows what it feels like to be a winner.
GAME NOTES: The last time Arkansas beat Mississippi State in the tournament was in 2001 when LaToya Thomas scored 44 points in a losing effort. Arkansas' Sarah Pfeiffer suffered a slight concussion in the last game after taking a shot to the jaw but showed no ill effects Thursday. Arkansas is now 6-0 this season when scoring at least 80 points. Mississippi State's Tan White leads the SEC and the nation with an average of 23 points per game. Her output of 38 points is the fifth best single-game performance in tournament history. Thomas holds the record with 44.
OOPS: Augusta, with its well-known golf course, isn't far from Greenville so maybe headline writers are just programmed to type in the word. Thursday's edition of The Greenville News had the headline: LSU's Augusta voted player of the year. The paper meant, of course, Seimone Augustus. The text of the story had the correct name of the SEC standout and conference player of the year.
PAST WINNERS: Six teams have laid claim to the SEC Tournament title with Tennessee leading the pack at 10 in 1980 – the first year the tournament was played – and 1985, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. Auburn and Georgia have four crowns each, Auburn in 1981, 1987, 1990 and 1997; and Georgia in 1983, 1993, 1995 and 2002. Vanderbilt is next with three in 1993, 1995 and 2002. LSU has two, 1990 and 2003; and Kentucky took the title in 1982.