Meighan Simmons comes full circle
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- All those shots hoisted, all those miles run trying to beat a defense down the court or free herself from a thicket of screens, and Meighan Simmons winds up back at the starting line.
This is not to say it was a wasted trip for the Tennessee senior whose career in so many ways embodies the challenges of an era of change for the Lady Vols.
On Sunday, Simmons will take the court in this arena near the banks of the Ohio River and attempt to prolong her college career in a regional semifinal between No. 1 seed Tennessee and No. 4 seed Maryland. The math is brutally simple at this time of year. Only with a win Sunday and another in Tuesday's regional final can she leave Louisville and play more games.
That's a far cry from four years ago, when she left here with her whole career in front of her.
With 15:46 remaining in the first half of the first-ever game at the KFC Yum! Center on Nov. 12, 2010, Simmons checked in for the first time in a regular-season college game. Her first recorded statistical contribution was a turnover about a minute later, but that was about the only thing she did wrong that day. While Louisville's Shoni Schimmel struggled with missed shots and eight turnovers in her college debut, Simmons led all players with 22 points in a 63-50 Tennessee win.
Pat Summitt, it seemed, had found another star.
"I will never forget Pat just telling me to be confident, be confident in what I could bring to the table," Simmons recalled. "I will never forget just playing with such charisma and such poise and being confident. Everything was just flowing. I didn't want to let Pat down, I didn't want to let my team down. I just wanted to win."
The best way for her to help make that happen was to score as many points as possible. It always has been that way for the guard with the quick first step and even quicker release.
Four years later, her team has the top seed, but she receives third billing among the senior stars on hand.
This is Schimmel's house, the arena where she has played and entertained for four seasons. It's an appropriately big stage for a player who so often seems to play up to big moments, whether taking the ball at Brittney Griner in the Sweet 16 a season ago or scoring 33 points as a freshman to upset second-seeded Xavier.
More immediately, Simmons is cast opposite Maryland's Alyssa Thomas. Like Simmons, Thomas is seeking her first Final Four appearance, but is widely recognized as among a handful of the best players the college game has to offer, a two-time WBCA All-American and no less deserving of that accolade for a third time this season.
Whatever happens here, Schimmel and Thomas long ago shaped the legacies they will leave. It's more complicated with Simmons.
It is not as if she lacks lines on the résumé. She was the media's pick as SEC Player of the Year this season and split the same honor from the coaches a season ago. She is one of five players in Tennessee history to score 2,000 points, no small feat when the other four names are Chamique Holdsclaw, Bridgette Gordon, Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings. But she is also without the Final Four appearance that once seemed a birthright for the Lady Vols, and she hasn't helped her own cause. In 14 career NCAA tournament games, she is averaging 12.9 points per game on 36 percent shooting.
In three appearances in regional finals, she has more turnovers than field goals.
Given her small frame and the unceasing energy with which she plays, Simmons always appears to be trying harder than anyone else on the court. Trying too hard at times, trying to squeeze points out of stone.
"She really loves the game; she loves to play," Tennessee assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "I think for her that's such an important piece of it. It's not so much that she set out with this goal of leading Tennessee in scoring, but she just loves playing. That's who she is; she has a scorer's mindset."
So as the lone senior on this team, the weight of history squarely on her shoulders, perhaps it's no surprise she had to deal with both the pressure and the desire to write her own ending this season.
"I think Meighan now has a lot of trust in this basketball team," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "I think Meighan, in particular this year at the beginning of the year, felt like she's the lone senior, felt like she has to do everything, had to do it all. I think now she understands that there's some ladies on the basketball team that want to help her. It's changed her, kind of, whole demeanor or outlook of this team."
There are certain roles in sports that come with a bigger spotlight, more opportunity for acclaim and more opportunity for criticism, than others. Tennessee is six years removed from its most recent national championship and its most recent Final Four appearance, but go-to scorer for the Lady Vols remains one of those roles. For most of her time in Knoxville, Tenn., Simmons has occupied it.
"I think Meighan in the beginning felt all this senior pressure," teammate Andraya Carter said. "But we had a lot of team meetings and a lot of different talks. We've just been like 'Meigh, we've got you. Just do what you're capable of, we'll do what we're capable of, and we'll win basketball games. You don't have to do anything extra. We're all going to give our all, so just give us what you can.'
"I think she's noticed that as we've played more games, and she's started to trust us and it's gone well."
The numbers can't prove or disprove the psychology behind the surge, but there is no doubt Simmons was decidedly more effective and efficient down the stretch this season, which would fit the hypothesis. Starting with the aftermath of a loss at home to Notre Dame on Jan. 20 (a game in which Simmons actually shot the ball phenomenally well), Tennessee went 10-1 through the remainder of its regular-season schedule. Simmons shot 47.9 percent in those games and committed just 2.3 turnovers per game. In the team's first 18 games, she shot 41.9 percent and committed 3.1 turnovers per game.
The Lady Vols see a connection. Most importantly, Simmons sees a connection.
"At any point in time when I do feel like I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself, they always just remind me that they have my back," Simmons said. "It hasn't been like that the past couple of years. With this team, the camaraderie is different, the chemistry is different. It's just a different feeling. It's most definitely a different feeling to know I have such a tight-knit team and we can do anything we put our minds to."
That said, while dark clouds literally descended on Louisville Saturday, some figurative ones accompanied the Lady Vols from Knoxville. Simmons has continued to play without the turnovers that occasionally pop up in her game, but her shooting touch has gone missing in the postseason. In five games across the SEC tournament and the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, she is shooting 28 percent on 16.4 attempts per game -- her highest rate of attempts all season. She is shooting more and making less. That has not been a good combination in past postseasons.
In all five cases her teammates helped pick her up, whether the familiar figure of Isabelle Harrison piling points en route to an SEC tournament title or less predictable support from Jordan Reynolds, Mercedes Russell or Cierra Burdick on a given night. If her touch returns, Tennessee will be difficult to beat. If her teammates keep producing -- and getting opportunities to do so -- the Lady Vols will be tough to beat.
That has been the story for Simmons for most of her four seasons.
As the lone senior, she is the last Tennessee player who ever truly played a full season under the direction of Summitt (Warlick was responsible for much of the day-to-day operations during the 2011-12 season, after which Summitt officially left the bench for the position of head coach emeritus). Summitt remains a part of Lady Vols basketball, but one chapter of that history comes to a close when Simmons leaves.
And just as Summitt's words sent her onto the court here for her first game four years ago, they are with her as she tries to forestall her final game.
"She made me become the woman that I am today, reminding me to never give up, always be confident," Simmons said. "When adversity hits you, just don't stop fighting -- ever. She's always reminded me just to continue to get better and continue to play hard each and every game. She knew what I could do. She knew that if I put my mind to it I could be the player I wanted to be."
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