FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Meighan Simmons turned her head to watch the video board, just like the rest of her teammates.
The Tennessee junior had little interest in watching the pre-game presentation, which featured highlights of Arkansas’ shocking overtime win over the Lady Vols last season, other than to fuel her inner fire.
Simmons made sure Tennessee didn’t overlook Arkansas again on Sunday, scoring 18 points as the No. 11 Lady Vols rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit and held on for a 60-54 win over the Razorbacks.
“We seemed to not have the intensity level we needed in the first half,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “We came in and had a good conversation and made some adjustments at halftime, and we stepped it up and played with a little bit more passion and effort in the second half and got the job done.”
The Lady Vols (22-5, 13-1 Southeastern Conference) extended their winning streak to five games and remained atop the conference standings. It was an especially timely win, given they face the SEC’s other top two teams — No. 10 Texas A&M and No. 8 Kentucky — next week.
The win also came on the heels of the Razorbacks’ win last season, a win that snapped an 18-game losing streak to Tennessee. It was also the first win in Knoxville for Arkansas (17-10, 5-9), a win that opened the door for the Razorbacks to reach the NCAA tournament and helped Kentucky slip past the Lady Vols to win the SEC’s regular season championship.
Highlights from the win were played on the video board in Bud Walton Arena before Sunday’s tipoff, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by the Lady Vols — or Simmons.
“For us, I feel like, we’re going after an SEC championship and everybody is going to try and give their 110 percent when the play against us,” Simmons said. “But, you know, we kind of took that as a motivation.”
Simmons, the SEC’s leading scorer, had 11 points in the second half to lead Tennessee back from a 28-19 halftime deficit. Taber Spani added 14 points for the Lady Vols, while Bashaara Graves had 11.
Quistelle Williams led Arkansas, which has lost seven of its nine games to ranked teams, with 15 points.
“I think over a period of time, the moral victories that you get, you’d like to think that your kids absorb that and that they grow and continue to improve,” Arkansas coach Tom Collen said. “But, the reality of the season is when you get down to the point where you’re in the last week of the regular season, it’s pretty hard to keep fighting through when all you’re coming up with are moral victories.”
The Lady Vols, who shot just 26.9 percent in the first half, came out in the second with a point to prove.
While the first half didn’t go as planned, they took control early in the second half. After Arkansas took a 30-19 lead following a jumper by Jhasmin Bowen, Tennessee went on a 24-6 run to take a 43-36 lead — sparked by a pair of 3-pointers by Simmons.
Ariel Massengale gave the Lady Vols their first lead since the first half with a drive that put them up 38-36 with 13:30 remaining, a lead they didn’t give up for the rest of the game.
Arkansas did close back to within 51-50 following a jumper by Sarah Watkins with 3:32 remaining, but Simmons and Spani hit shots in the closing minute — to go along with made free throws — to close out the win. Tennessee finished 17 of 22 from the free throw line, while the Razorbacks were just 2 of 4.
Tennessee led by as many as seven midway through the first half, taking a 14-7 lead after a putback by Simmons finished off a 7-0 run.
Arkansas, however, answered with a stunning 21-5 run to close out the half — bookmarking 10-0 and 9-0 runs around a brief reprieve for the Lady Vols. The latter run closed out the first half for the Razorbacks, who took a 28-19 halftime lead when Watkins connected on a baseline jumper as the buzzer sounded.
“We just played defense, basically,” Williams said. “Everybody on our team is a great defensive player.”
Tennessee was just 7 of 26 (26.9 percent) from the field in the half and committed 13 turnovers. Every Lady Vols player had at least one turnover, while Arkansas had just four. They cleaned up their game in the second half, committing just three turnovers after the break and outrebounding the Razorbacks 46-33 overall.
“We knew that they were going to play for steals, and we were just playing too fast,” Spani said. “We kind of let them dictate, and so we started to play at their pace instead of what we wanted to play.
“In the second half, we really just took control and calmed down, finally.”