published Saturday, March 29th, 2014

Lady Vols' Simmons back where she started

Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons, right, steals the ball from St. John's Jade Walker, center, in their NCAA women's basketball second-round tournament game in Knoxville in this March 24, 2014, photo.
Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons, right, steals the ball from St. John's Jade Walker, center, in their NCAA women's basketball second-round tournament game in Knoxville in this March 24, 2014, photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons wants to make sure her women's basketball college career doesn't end where it started.

In her debut performance as a Lady Vol, Simmons scored 22 points to help Tennessee beat Louisville 63-50 in the inaugural regular-season game at the KFC Yum! Center. Simmons, the lone senior on this year's Tennessee's roster, is heading back to that building for the Louisville Regional.

The top-seeded Lady Vols (29-5) face No. 4 seed Maryland (26-6) in a regional semifinal Sunday. The winner will face No. 3 seed Louisville (32-4) or No. 7 seed LSU (21-12) in Tuesday's regional championship game.

This represents Simmons' last chance to reach the Final Four after each of her first three seasons at Tennessee ended in regional finals. The Final Four is in Nashville, about a three-hour drive from Tennessee's campus.

"It would definitely mean a lot," Simmons said. "It's something I've had to face all three [previous] years. This being my senior year, I would love to get over that hump, just to get out there and play and just to know what it feels like to get out there and play for a Final Four."

Simmons is one of only five 2,000-point scorers in Lady Vols history. She was an Associated Press All-America third-team selection last year and was the AP Southeastern Conference player of the year this season.

"She's so loyal to this program, and she's going to go down as one of the best shooters in Tennessee history," Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. "I think she's brought her offensive game. She's brought her game when our backs have been against the wall. ... She's been very valuable to us as far as leadership, as far as competitiveness and obviously what she brings to the table offensively."

But she's had a frustrating NCAA tournament history. Simmons shot 1-of-15 in a regional semifinal victory over Oklahoma State last March and was 4-of-16 in an 86-78 loss to Louisville that kept her out of the Final Four.

The 5-foot-9 senior from Cibolo, Texas, believes she's come a long way since last year's regional. Simmons said she's learned to avoid trying too hard or getting down on herself when her shots aren't falling. She's realized the importance of getting other players involved.

"I think knowing my teammates have my back and are willing to be there for me for everything and give it their all to help me get to a Final Four and help the team get to a Final Four, it just allows me to get rid of my butterflies and just stay focused and get prepared to play," Simmons said.

"She's not playing as tense as she was," junior center Isabelle Harrison said. "I think she had that mentality that she had to do everything. It just makes you think too much, when you think you have everything on your shoulders. We really divided everything that we need to take care of and not put it all on Meighan."

Simmons' current postseason shows the change, though it also offers some cause for concern.

Although Simmons shot 14-of-54 in three SEC tournament games, she still averaged 15.3 points by consistently getting to the free-throw line instead of settling for jump shots.

Simmons, who shot 27.3 percent in last year's NCAA tournament, was 4-of-15 in an opening-round victory over Northwestern State. But she bounced back by scoring 17 points Monday in a 67-51 victory over St. John's.

Now she's going back to a familiar arena eager to earn a trip to Nashville and achieve the one goal that's eluded her.

"We played the first two rounds here [in Knoxville]," Simmons said. "We're going back to where my career started, and we're coming back to Tennessee, where I need to finish up my career. Everything is falling into place."

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