AUBURN, Ala. – Before Meighan Simmons could lift Tennessee, the junior guard needed a pick-me-up herself Thursday night against Auburn.
So teammate Taber Spani implored her to “go get a signature Meighan Simmons play.”
With the crowd of 3,312 at Auburn Arena warming to the possibility of an upset, a steal by Simmons set the player called “speedy” in motion for a driving basket. She completed a three-point play after being fouled. The sudden turn of events shook UT out of its doldrums and propelled them to a 75-66 SEC women’s basketball victory.
“Normally, I get emotional after plays like that,” Simmons said. “For some reason I wasn’t even that emotional.”
Everyone else was, however. The Lady Vols took off on an 11-2 scoring run, regaining the lead at 49-47 with 10:05 left. It was their first advantage since the game’s first minute. For good measure, Simmons added two 3-pointers to the surge. She finished with a game-high 29 points, shooting 10 for 14 from the floor.
“We needed somebody with high energy to get us going tonight for whatever reason,” UT head coach Holly Warlick said, “and I thought Meighan’s steal kind of ignited us. ... It was a huge play for us, a huge turnaround.”
The Lady Vols, who trailed by as many as 12 points with 14:29 left, had to erase another four-point deficit inside the final eight minutes. They had enough left to built their lead to as many as 13 points with 1:31 remaining.
Along with the timely advice, Spani scored 12 points for No. 9 Tennessee (14-3, 5-0 SEC). Ariel Massengale had 11.
Blanche Alverson and Hasina Muhammad scored 15 points apiece to lead Auburn (13-5, 2-3).
Tennessee’s comeback matched its 12-point rally in an 88-81 overtime victory over Middle Tennessee State on Nov. 28. The Lady Vols won for the first time this season when being outscored in the paint. Auburn had a 32-20 advantage from close range.
The Tigers led by as many as 11 points in the first half and were dominating virtually all of the pertinent statistics. The most glaring was a 16-2 edge in paint points and a 10-0 advantage in second-chance points.
UT post players Bashaara Graves and Isabelle Harrison, who finished with 11 rebounds apiece, were a combined 0 for 8 from the floor at halftime and finished 3 for 15 against the Tigers’ sticky defense, scoring a combined 11 points.
“We were just rushing,” Spani said. “We had our practice guys trapping us (in practice) even more than they did but they’re athletic, long and scrappy. They wanted it.”
Despite her hot shooting, Simmons was burdened by the weight of her six turnovers. She was getting pep talks from the coaches, as well as Spani.
“Coaches told me just to relax and make sure I was doing everything I could to help the team,” Simmons said, “and not have a bad attitude or anything like that and just don’t get down on myself.”
Simmons’ three second-half steals were instrumental to UT’s rally, right along with the 18 points she scored after halftime. Freshman Jasmine Jones’ defense against Auburn point guard Najat Ouardad was crucial, too. She had five turnovers in the second half.
The Lady Vols also were opportunistic, catching Auburn with six players on the court during a substitution. After the resulting technical foul, Simmons made two free throws with 5:03 left.
Because of the wintry weather in Knoxville, the Lady Vols spent Thursday night in Auburn before returning. Warlick wondered about the last time that she watched a movie before saying, “I’m sure that (game video) is probably up on my computer as we speak.”
It’s must-see viewing.
“We have to learn from every game we play, every game,” she said. “It just doesn’t come easy for us, and we have to solve some things.”
Dan Fleser covers Tennessee women’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser.