Tennessee was ahead of schedule Thursday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
It attacked Auburn as though a championship was on the line in an 83-61 victory.
The title-type match-ups are a week away — when the Lady Vols close out their regular season with Thursday-Sunday games against Texas A&M and Kentucky, their prime challengers for the SEC women’s basketball championship.
The Auburn game qualified as a warm-up act. But this warm-up had plenty of sizzle.
Eleventh-ranked Tennessee (21-5) outscored the Tigers 19-2 to open the game. Its effort was as obvious as the score and best exemplified by a headfirst slide by Meigan Simmons in the first two minutes.
She chased a loose ball deep into the backcourt, dove onto the floor in final pursuit and won the battle for possession when the ball rolled out of bounds off Auburn’s Hasina Muhammad.
“We’ve been focusing a lot on the defensive end the past couple of practices,” Simmons said. “I’ve been working so hard to make defense a priority. My defense really did dictate my offense.”
“I consider myself to be a scorer. But to be the greatest player, you have to work on both ends of the floor.”
Simmons’ energy and quick hands on defense served as a catalyst for the torrid start from which Auburn never recovered. The Tigers, who have lost nine of their last 10 games, had 14 first-half turnovers, three coming on Simmons steals.
“Meighan Simmons is a great player,” Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “When she plays good defense, she becomes an even better player.”
UT coach Holly Warlick concurred.
“We’ve been trying to harp on her not to be a one-dimensional player,” Warlick said. “I thought she was outstanding.
Attention to defense enhanced Simmons’ offense as well. She had 13 of her game-high 24 points in the first half; her final stat line also included seven rebounds, a career-high five steals and four assists.
Auburn had seen it all before.
Simmons had 29 points and six steals last month at Auburn as Tennessee overcame a 12-point deficit for a 75-66 victory.
Simmons was the same Thursday. The game wasn’t.
This time, the Lady Vols hit six of their first seven 3-point attempts, put six players in double figures and played markedly better defense than in last Sunday’s victory against Vanderbilt.
The performance was magnified by what comes next. UT’s stretch run includes a road trip to Arkansas on Sunday, followed by those back-to-back games against nationally ranked Texas A&M and Kentucky.
Only Auburn was on Tennessee’s mind Thursday.
“We’re not good enough
to overlook a team,” Warlick said. “We’ve got to play in the moment.”
While staying in the present, it’s also important they don’t lose sight of the past.
Last season, the Lady Vols drubbed Arkansas by 31 points in Fayetteville. But with an SEC regular-season championship within their grasp, they were upset by Arkansas in late February.
“It’s really fresh on our mind,” Warlick said. “We will not allow them to overlook Arkansas.
“You’ve got to take care of business in Fayetteville.”
Then, the Lady Vols would be in position to take care of bigger business the last two games of the regular season.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at johnadamskns.