KNOXVILLE - Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons has bounced back from a disappointing sophomore season to emerge as the Southeastern Conference's leading scorer in her junior year.
Now she wants to become a more consistent defender.
The second-seeded Lady Vols (26-7) need Simmons to deliver a complete performance Sunday when they face No. 6 seed Oklahoma (24-10) in an Oklahoma City Regional semifinal matching two of the nation's highest-scoring teams.
"I've matured a lot on both ends of the floor," Simmons said. "Defense is one of the things I've been trying to focus on. I know at the next level, they're going to be looking at a lot of things, and defense is one of those things. When I continue to focus on that, it makes me become an all-around player. I am an all-around player right now, but when I put my mind to it, I can do anything."
Simmons averaged 13.5 points and was the SEC newcomer of the year in 2010-11, but she followed that up by scoring just 11.1 points per game and shooting 37.5 percent from the floor as a sophomore.
She learned from the experience and improved her numbers across the board this year.
"I've become more patient," Simmons said. "My freshman year, there are so many shots I'd take that I think about [now] and watch film from the last couple of years and I'm like, 'Oh my God, what was I doing?' Now my shots are more within the offense."
Simmons averages 17.3 points per game and holds a narrow edge over LSU's Theresa Plaisance (17.0) for the SEC scoring lead. Simmons is aiming to become the first Lady Vol to top the SEC in scoring since her favorite player Candace Parker accomplished the feat in Tennessee's 2008 national championship season.
Her remarkable speed allows Simmons to run up and down the floor with just about anyone in the country. Simmons comes from an athletic family and lists former Butkus Award-winning linebacker Aaron Curry and former NFL linebacker Eric Barton among her cousins. The 5-foot-9 junior from Cibolo, Texas, expects to have 15-20 friends or relatives watching her in Oklahoma City this weekend.
"She's incredible at putting the ball in the basket," sophomore guard Ariel Massengale said. "We know whenever we're in crunch time and need a basket, we can count on her to make that happen for us."
Although offense comes naturally to Simmons, her defense is a work in progress.
"Meighan is learning the complete game, the total game," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "We all know she's a scorer. I think she's had to understand she's got to do different things for us to be successful. She's becoming a better defender, a better rebounder, and that's what we need from her."
Ever since she took over the program last April, Warlick has emphasized the importance of defense to Simmons. Warlick and her assistants have reminded Simmons that scoring in bunches won't help the team if she's giving up an equal number of points on the other end of the floor.
"It's just holding her accountable, being consistent with her," assistant coach Kyra Elzy said. "Just because you're scoring doesn't mean you're going to get to stay on the floor if you're not getting it done on the defensive end. ... I think she's stepped up to the challenge."
Tennessee's opening game in the NCAA tournament showed how far Simmons has come in that regard.
Simmons went on one of her customary scoring spurts Saturday by reeling off 10 straight Tennessee points during a 15-3 run that put the Lady Vols ahead for good in an 83-62 victory over Oral Roberts. This time, her defense created her offense. Simmons made a pair of steals during the run that led to layups.
"That's a step in the right direction," Elzy said. "Now we just need it consistently. That's what we're looking for from her every game."
They'll definitely need it from her Sunday.
Tennessee's chances of going on its first Final Four run since 2008 could depend on how well Simmons and her teammates defend. Tennessee averages 77.7 points per game to rank fourth nationally, while Oklahoma (73.0) ranks 15th.
Oklahoma has averaged 81.5 points in each of its first two NCAA tournament games. Aaryn Ellenberg has averaged 24.5 points and has shot a combined 10 of 20 from 3-point range in the first two rounds of the tournament.
"She's a great player," Simmons said. "She's the head of the snake. I think if we take her down, we should be fine."