She became the first Lady Vol SEC heptathlon champion since Marvena Almond in 1996 and recorded the sixth victory by a UT performer in meet history.
Ali's feat, combined with a third-place effort from junior Shanna Dickenson, put the Lady Vols in third place with 16 points after two days of action. Georgia is heading the pack with 28 points, followed by Florida with 20. Arkansas is in fourth with 14, trailed by Kentucky (13), Mississippi State (10), LSU and Vanderbilt (6), Ole Miss (3) and Auburn (1). Host Alabama and South Carolina have not scored.
"I tip my hat to Nia for coming through under pressure," Head Coach J.J. Clark said. "For a freshman to win any event in the SEC is very rare. I have to give a lot of credit to Nia and my staff.
"She showed a great deal of composure and gave a tremendous effort through both days of this competition. She competed with tenacity when it was necessary and demonstrated a lot of poise for a freshman."
With a 122-point lead over Mississippi State's Marrissa Harris and a 155-point advantage over Georgia's Sarah Gretzmacher entering the final event, the 800 meters, Ali did not have experience to rely on as she chased what two days ago seemed an improbable triumph. Running the first half-mile race since her youth track days, the orange-clad performer paced herself smartly, though, and had enough energy in reserve at the end to close the meet with a fourth-place finish of 2:24.55 that was good for 763 points.
Finishing 10 seconds ahead of Harris and only a second back of Gretzmacher in the 800m, Ali was able to hold on and win the competition by 140 points over the UGA standout (5,350).
Vanderbilt's Garnetta Holloway moved up to third at 5,245, while Harris fell to fourth at 5,242.
"It felt good (to win)," Ali said. "I felt like I set a good example for my teammates and let them know that although it may be your first time doing something, and although it may be your first time as a freshman doing something in a college meet, never give up and just do your best. When you do your best, you can't fail."
Ali began the second day of competition with her third personal-best mark of the meet. A last-attempt leap of 19-6 1/4 in the long jump propelled her to second in that event with 834 points and kept her in the lead through five events at 4,304 ahead of MSU's Harris (4,182). Ali had stood at fifth in the long jump at 18-3 3/4 until her final-try heroics.
The novice multi-eventer came through with another last-chance PR in the javelin throw to remain in first place with 4,727 points entering the final event. Her fling of 89-2, the first mark she has ever officially charted in the javelin, pushed her into a tie for fifth place in that event and collected her 423 points. She stood 122 points ahead of Harris and potential victory entering the 800 meters.
"I just felt I needed some time (between events) to recuperate and gather my thoughts," Ali said. "Going into each event, I was so tired because I have never done this before. I thought 30 minutes would be enough. I gathered my focus for my last jump or last throw and guided my thinking toward the idea that if this (winning) is what I really want, I am going to have to put a mark out there."
Earlier in the day, Dickenson got the Lady Vols on the scoreboard for the first time in the meet. Her fling of 187 feet, nine inches, was good for third place in the competition and her first-ever SEC points in this event. She was 10th a year ago and 21st as a freshman.
Dickenson had entered today's action ranked second in the league with a school-best heave of 198-3. Georgia's Jenny Dahlgren won her second straight title, stretching the tape to a stadium-best 227-0.
In one of two preliminary events involving the Big Orange on Friday, Tennessee advanced three to Sunday's final in the 800 meters. Freshman Rose-Anne Galligan posted the fastest time of that trio, taking second in heat one in a career-best 2:06.68, while senior Leslie Treherne and sophomore Sarah Bowman finished one-two in heat three at 2:06.83 and 2:06.87, respectively, with Treherne notching a 2 1/2-second season best.
Freshman Phoebe Wright ran the fastest open outdoor 800m time of her life by about eight seconds, but her fourth-place result of 2:08.01 in heat one put her in 11th place overall and two spots out of making the final. Her time, though, was fast enough to earn her a berth in the NCAA Mideast Regional alongside her three UT colleagues.
In the final event of the day, Tennessee was able to send only one qualifier on to Sunday's 200-meter dash final. Freshman Lynne Layne was the sole advancer, logging a personal best of 23.26 seconds to taking second in heat three and chart the sixth-best mark of the day. Junior Courtney Champion wound up 11th at 23.63, junior LaTonya Loche was 13th at 23.91 and junior Cleo Tyson was 14th at 24.05. Champion and Loche, however, did join the qualifying list for the NCAA regional meet.
"It was a solid performance today," Clark said. "We had the freshman win the heptathlon, we took third in the hammer and got three to the finals in the 800 meters. We got another regional qualifier and a personal best from Phoebe Wright in the 800m. She did the best she could, and for a freshman to come in running 2:15.9 and take it down to 2:08 shows we are on the right track.
"Obviously, we wanted to have at least a couple more in the 200-meter dash final. We kind of had our checks and balances with the other stuff that happened today, so we'll just keep plugging away and see what happens."
UT is back in action on Saturday at 5 p.m. Central Time with the long jump. It is the first of seven events involving UT female athletes, including finals in the long jump, shot put and 3000m steeplechase.