LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Tennessee’s Meighan Simmons already was known for her quickness. Her Lady Vols’ debut only enhanced her reputation.
The freshman guard introduced herself as an instant hero Friday night against Louisville and a women’s basketball crowd of 22,124 at the KFC Yum! Center. She scored a game-high 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds in helping steer UT to a 63-50 season-opening victory.
“I know we love her,’’ said junior teammate Shekinna Stricklen. “She really stepped up. She actually pulled out this game for us.”
Simmons said she was unable to take an afternoon nap after the team’s shooting practice. Apparently, she was channeling pent-up energy rather than nerves.
She entered the game inside the first five minutes and had 12 points and several highlights by halftime, including a wicked cross-over dribble that led to a driving layup.
With the Cardinals lurking within one point with just over seven minutes left, the 5-foot-9 sharpshooter swished three straight jumpers — a pull-up shot and her only two 3 pointers — to give No. 4 Tennessee some precious breathing room at 53-44 with 6:06 left.
“She wasn’t really in the scouting report,’’ Louisville forward Monique Reid said. “We knew she was a baller. If you go to Tennessee, you’re a baller. Big ups to her.”
Simmons praised God afterward and summed up her night with a dramatic benediction.
“I gave this girl a gift,’’ she said. “Why not use it?”
Louisville coach Jeff Walz gave his coaching counterpart, UT’s Pat Summitt, credit for sticking with Simmons through her five missed treys and five turnovers.
“There was no ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that’ ” he said. “She let her just play.”
Summitt didn’t have much choice, considering Tennessee’s foul trouble and sloppy play. The game wasn’t seven minutes old before Tennessee post players Kelley Cain and Vicki Baugh had picked up two fouls apiece and the Lady Vols had committed eight of their 29 turnovers.
Louisville had something to do with Tennessee’s struggles. Led by forward Monique Reid’s 19 points, the Cardinals were showing off some aggressive defense and team tenacity.
Tennessee forward Glory Johnson held out her arm as an example of the game’s hard-fought nature.
“I’ve never seen a busted blood vessel before,’’ she said. “I’ve got one.”
Simmons and sophomore guard Kamiko Williams came off the bench to create some tempo and jumpstart UT’s offense, enough of a jolt for a 31-26 halftime lead.
While UT’s youth was being served, so was its tradition. The Lady Vols survived with rebounding and defense.
They outrebounded the Cardinals by 18 in the second half, finishing with a lopsided 53-29 advantage. Stricklen, who scored 14 points, also grabbed 12 rebounds, eight after halftime.
“It’s just hard work and going after it and not quitting, fighting,’’ she said.
UT’s defense was buoyed by deploying a zone alignment just enough in the second half to keep the Cardinals off-balance. The strategy played a part in Louisville going scoreless for a crucial stretch of nearly three minutes as UT pushing its lead into double figures at 55-44 after a Stricklen layup with 5:11 left.
“If you find a way to win,’’ Summitt said, “You have to appreciate that fact.”
Dan Fleser covers UT Lady Vols basketball. He may be reached at 865-342-6288. Follow him at http://www.twitter.com/@fleserKNS and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser/