DULUTH, Ga. — Tennessee’s Meighan Simmons was playing the role of scorer better than spectator Friday afternoon.
So a role reversal wasn’t advisable until the junior guard picked up her fourth foul with 7:23 left against Florida.
Cue the other scorers.
Before a crowd of 4,819 at Gwinnett Arena, UT’s supporting cast sprang into action. They restocked a lead that had shriveled to seven points. They helped guide Tennessee past Florida 82-73 in an SEC women’s basketball tournament quarterfinal game.
The Lady Vols will face Texas A&M (22-9) in a semifinal today (TV: ESPNU, 4 p.m.). The fourth-seeded Aggies beat No. 5 South Carolina 61-52 in Friday afternoon’s second quarterfinal.
“We’ve had this all year, when somebody goes out with an injury or fouls, another person has to step up,” UT forward Taber Spani said. “It’s like a rotating door of who’s going to step up at any given time.”
Simmons returned with 2:39 left and topped off her team-high 20 points. But five other Lady Vols joined her in double figures.
Cierra Burdick came off the bench to score 14. Spani scored 13 and Kamiko Williams had 12. Bashaara Graves and Ariel Massengale scored 10 apiece.
Despite their thin ranks, the Lady Vols’ scorers overwhelmed Florida’s, who were led by Sydney Moss’ game-high 22 points.
No. 9 Tennessee (24-6) shot 48.2 percent from the floor (27-for-56). With Florida pressing and whittling the lead to six points inside the final minute, the Lady Vols hit six of eight free throws.
“We buckled down,” Burdick said. “We wanted to win. We continued to fight.”
Burdick, who grabbed a game-high eight rebounds, did some of her best work with Simmons watching. After grabbing an offensive rebound, Burdick saved a wayward possession by hooking a pass to Williams, setting up her baseline jumper for a 65-56 lead.
“One of my strengths is I see the floor well,” Burdick said, “and I kind of saw the play before it ever happened.”
Another offensive rebound led to her driving basket. Another great pass enabled Graves to beat the shot clock with a layup.
Burdick finally tipped a missed shot to Spani and finished the possession with a driving jumper. Her work added up to a 71-58 lead with 2:51 left.
“She was huge,” Spani said. “She just flies in there and uses her size. She’s just scrappy.”
Along with covering for Simmons’ foul trouble, the Lady Vols’ scorers also covered for the team’s suspect defense. UT’s 17-4 start was not a portent of the game to come. Florida (18-14) finished with three double-figure scorers and a 42-28 edge in paint points.
UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood grumbled afterward that the Lady Vols couldn’t guard his house.
“And my house doesn’t move,” he said.
Lockwood recalled at least three second-half possessions by the Gators that required less than 10 seconds to go from inbounds pass to two points.
UT coaches repeatedly reminded players of the teams’ regular-season meeting in Gainesville, Fla., on Jan. 13 won by Tennessee in overtime, 78-75.
“We tried the shootout in Gainesville and look where it got us, overtime,” Lockwood said.
Spani said that the ongoing issue involves mind-set more than anything.
“We can’t keep saying the same things over and over,” she said. “Our one-on-one defense has got to get better.
“… It’s not a fatigue thing. It’s a mentally tough thing. You just have to be mentally tough for 40 minutes and dig down and play defense.”
Dan Fleser covers Tennessee women’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/FleserKNS and http;//blogs.knoxnews.com/fleser.