- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons talks about her NCAA tournament first-round performance.
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The quick way to describe Meighan Simmons' two-year journey so far at Tennessee is to say she's a natural shooter who's still learning how to be a complete basketball player.
The long version would take awhile to tell: how the talented 5-foot-9 guard out of Texas has experienced a lot of ups and downs while trying to reach the potential she clearly has.
Saturday, with her 20-point performance against No. 15 seed UT-Martin in a 72-49 NCAA tournament first-round victory, Simmons showed the progress she has made in various aspects of the sport.
"All her career, the ball found her," Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said of Simmons' scoring proficiency prior to arriving in Knoxville, Tenn. "Now she's playing with a talented team that has to share the basketball. I think she is understanding better how to play with other people, and she's really made a commitment to get her defense better.
"I thought it was outstanding today. Maybe one or two breakdowns, but for the most part for Meighan, she had a good defensive game as well as offensively."
UT-Martin is, of course, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt's alma mater. UT-Martin didn't have women's athletics scholarships back when Summitt played there in 1970-74. The scrappy, hard-working UT-Martin team that took the floor at AllState Arena in suburban Chicago was one that the old-school Summitt surely appreciated and could relate to.
UT-Martin, the Ohio Valley Conference champion at 15-1, had a game plan to keep Tennessee out of the paint as much as possible. Despite the fact that some of the Skyhawks are about as small as leprechauns, they didn't do too bad a job limiting the Lady Vols' looks inside. Tennessee went to the line only 10 times, making six free throws. Both teams had just eight turnovers.
"We said this could not be a pickup game," UT-Martin coach Kevin McMillan said. "If the game turned into that, 10 McDonald's All-Americans are going to beat 10 little girls out of Western Tennessee just about every time. We told our kids it was going to be an execution basketball game.
"You saw us get worn down, and we are a team that lives on the free throw line. We shoot 20 free throws a game, but today we got only eight."
No. 2 seed Tennessee won the battle of the boards 52-39, and it had Simmons. Both those things made a big difference in this game.
Simmons' 20 points in her 21 minutes off the bench were the most she has scored since her 25 in a victory over Kentucky on Feb. 13.
"I think I came out poised," said Simmons, who started 21 of 22 games between Dec. 11 and Feb. 23. But after the loss to Arkansas in the second-to-last game of the regular season, Simmons went back to being a reserve.
"I think it's fine; it allows me to see what else is going on out there on the floor," said Simmons, who started all but one game last season as a freshman. "Once I get in, if I'm going to have an open shot, I'm going to take it."
Against the Skyhawks, several of the Lady Vols had open shots on the perimeter, actually. Simmons and freshman guard Ariel Massengale were the ones who made UT-Martin pay the most. Simmons was 4-of-7 on 3-pointers, Massengale 2-of-4.
Simmons and Massengale at their competitive best both have a spark to them that Tennessee -- even with all its seniors -- really needs.
"On the court, it's all about business," Massengale said. "I love having all these weapons; it's everything a point guard looks for on a team."
One of the weapons, though, misfired a lot Saturday: senior Shekinna Stricklen. Tennessee's leading scorer this season, Stricklen was limited to seven points on 3-of-12 shooting.
"They played a sagging defense, but certain people they were chasing. I was one of them," Stricklen said of the Skyhawks. "They came out really scrappy and physical. We adjusted in the second half.
"It wasn't nervousness for me, but I seemed to be fading back on my shots too much. But shooters don't quit shooting. It helped a lot that Meighan was on. If she hits her first couple of shots, she really gets going."
Senior post Glory Johnson had 14 points and 12 rebounds for Tennessee, which faces seventh-seeded host DePaul on Monday (ESPN2, 9:40 p.m. ET) for what would be the Lady Vols' 29th trip to the Sweet 16.
The Blue Demons survived 59-55 against No. 10 seed BYU. It will be the second meeting this season between Tennessee and DePaul; the Lady Vols won 84-61 at the Maggie Dixon Classic in New York in December.
"When your bench can get 38 points, you've got a lot of depth," Warlick said of Simmons, Massengale and the rest of the reserves. "We took care of the ball and defense was good in the second half. We got key rebounds.
"Meighan has to play well for us to continue winning. She hit some big shots, and in the second half, she defended. She can play defense when she puts her mind to it. I'm proud of her effort on both ends of the floor."
20dBonnie D. Ford