Sophomore's inspired showing boosted team
By Dan Fleser
The question Tennessee's Meighan Simmons asked herself was sort of vague in nature.
"Where do I want to be by the end of the year?" the sophomore guard wondered before Monday's game against Kentucky.
Her response, on the other hand, was to the point — a season-high 25 points to be specific.
"I wanted to come out there and make a statement,'' Simmons said, "and prove to everyone else that I'm so much better that what I've been showing."
No. 13 Tennessee (18-7, 9-3 SEC) would benefit greatly from further proof. The Lady Vols begin a two-game road trip with an SEC women's basketball game against Mississippi State (14-11, 4-8) today (TV: CSS, 9 p.m.).
When Simmons plays well, she tends to be demonstrative. And her teammates feed off her emotional displays, as if they're connected by jumper cables.
"This team needs energy,'' assistant coach Mickie DeMoss said. "We don't have an abundance of energy, and she is a high-energy player."
She debuted last season as if she came draped in neon, scoring 22 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the season-opener at Louisville. Afterward, teammate Shekinna Stricklen said: "I know we love her."
Simmons took the point-guard duties off Stricklen's hands and went on to become SEC freshman of the year, leading Tennessee in scoring (13.5 points per game), assists (104) and shots (438).
"I remember about
midway through last year I thought: 'Our whole self-confidence depends on whether Meighan Simmons hits shots or not,' '' DeMoss said. "Because (the players) fed off Meighan."
With Simmons carrying such a heavy load, the coaches didn't weigh her down defensively.
"We let her slide a little bit," DeMoss said, "not slide, but we were like: 'look how much can she learn in one year defensively."
The learning was left to this season as UT has sought more balance in its production and more emphasis on defense. Simmons still sounds like a freshman as she wrestles with the fundamentals of becoming a better defender.
"Just maintaining the (defensive) position,'' she said. "Staying low at all times. Seeing where the ball and my man are at all times. Being aware and being conscious of where the ball is at all times."
In her case, the learning curve was steeper than before. Since Simmons no longer was playing point guard, she wasn't able to concentrate solely on the other point guard, Instead, she's been fighting through a variety of screens in navigating the more treacherous terrain of off-ball defense.
DeMoss acknowledged that the thought process involved might diminish a shooter's concentration. Even after Monday's 10-for-17 performance, Simmons' overall accuracy of 36.4 percent still lags behind her 41.8 percent accuracy of last season.
Still, there are signs lately that Simmons the scorer might be able to coexist with her defensive alter ego. She's shot 56.7 percent from the floor (21 for 37) in the last three games and scored at least 20 points twice.
Her aggressive play along the front line of Tennessee's 2-3 zone Monday night was lauded by associate head coach Holly Warlick, albeit in back-handed fashion.
"I thought she was committed on the defensive end,'' Warlick said. "She was not a liability."
DeMoss conceded that a zone alignment might be less of a drain on Simmons. And the more energized she is, the better off Tennessee will be. No question.
"If we can keep getting that from her,'' DeMoss said, "it's going to be huge."