Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lady Vols' Simmons emerges as more complete player

Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons has bounced back from a disappointing
sophomore season to emerge as the Southeastern Conference's leading
scorer in her junior year.

Now she wants to become a more consistent defender.

The second-seeded Lady Vols (26-7) need Simmons to deliver a complete
performance Sunday when they face No. 6 seed Oklahoma (24-10) in an
Oklahoma City Regional semifinal matching two of the nation's
highest-scoring teams.

''I've matured a lot on both ends of the floor,'' Simmons said.
''Defense is one of the things I've been trying to focus on. I know at
the next level, they're going to be looking at a lot of things, and
defense is one of those things. When I continue to focus on that, it
makes me become an all-around player. I am an all-around player right
now, but when I put my mind to it, I can do anything.''

Simmons averaged 13.5 points and was the SEC newcomer of the year in
2010-11, but she followed that up by scoring just 11.1 points per game
and shooting 37.5 percent from the floor as a sophomore.

She learned from the experience and improved her numbers across the
board this year.

''I've become more patient,'' Simmons said. ''My freshman year, there
are so many shots I'd take that I think about (now) and watch film
from the last couple of years and I'm like, `Oh my God, what was I
doing?' Now my shots are more within the offense.''

Simmons averages 17.3 points per game and holds a narrow edge over
LSU's Theresa Plaisance (17.0) for the SEC scoring lead. Simmons is
aiming to become the first Lady Vol to top the SEC in scoring since
her favorite player Candace Parker accomplished the feat in
Tennessee's 2008 national championship season.

Her remarkable speed allows Simmons to run up and down the floor with
just about anyone in the country. Simmons comes from an athletic
family and lists former Butkus Award-winning linebacker Aaron Curry
and former NFL linebacker Eric Barton among her cousins. The 5-foot-9
junior from Cibolo, Texas, expects to have 15-20 friends or relatives
watching her in Oklahoma City this weekend.

''She's incredible at putting the ball in the basket,'' sophomore
guard Ariel Massengale said. ''We know whenever we're in crunch time
and need a basket, we can count on her to make that happen for us.''

Although offense comes naturally to Simmons, her defense is a work in progress.

''Meighan is learning the complete game, the total game,'' Tennessee
coach Holly Warlick said. ''We all know she's a scorer. I think she's
had to understand she's got to do different things for us to be
successful. She's becoming a better defender, a better rebounder, and
that's what we need from her.''

Ever since she took over the program last April, Warlick has
emphasized the importance of defense to Simmons. Warlick and her
assistants have reminded Simmons that scoring in bunches won't help
the team if she's giving up an equal number of points on the other end
of the floor.

''It's just holding her accountable, being consistent with her,''
assistant coach Kyra Elzy said. ''Just because you're scoring doesn't
mean you're going to get to stay on the floor if you're not getting it
done on the defensive end. ... I think she's stepped up to the

Tennessee's opening game in the NCAA tournament showed how far Simmons
has come in that regard.

Simmons went on one of her customary scoring spurts Saturday by
reeling off 10 straight Tennessee points during a 15-3 run that put
the Lady Vols ahead for good in an 83-62 victory over Oral Roberts.
This time, her defense created her offense. Simmons made a pair of
steals during the run that led to layups.

''That's a step in the right direction,'' Elzy said. ''Now we just
need it consistently. That's what we're looking for from her every

They'll definitely need it from her Sunday.

Tennessee's chances of going on its first Final Four run since 2008
could depend on how well Simmons and her teammates defend. Tennessee
averages 77.7 points per game to rank fourth nationally, while
Oklahoma (73.0) ranks 15th.

Oklahoma has averaged 81.5 points in each of its first two NCAA
tournament games. Aaryn Ellenberg has averaged 24.5 points and has
shot a combined 10 of 20 from 3-point range in the first two rounds of
the tournament.

''She's a great player,'' Simmons said. ''She's the head of the snake.
I think if we take her down, we should be fine.''

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