Simmons, Jones lead Lady Vol rally

AUBURN, Ala. - The Lady Vols stayed perfect in the SEC with a road win over the Tigers, but it required a rally and outpouring of scoring from Meighan Simmons. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis.

The Lady Vols were on the road, down 12 points in the second half, tossing the ball into the first row when not passing it to Auburn players and getting anemic scoring in the paint.

But Tennessee (14-3, 5-0) managed to find a way to win - coach speak but apropos for this game - against Auburn (13-5, 2-3) and stay perfect in the SEC.

"You're 5-0, and it's a tough league," Head coach Holly Warlick said. "Any win on the road, at home, it's huge. It's a huge win for us. It may not have gone the way we planned or liked, but the bottom line is you get it done, then you go home and you get better and correct things that you didn't do right tonight."

Getting home will be delayed a day. It was cold and clear in Auburn but snowy and icy in Knoxville and concerns about ground transportation once the team arrived home led to a decision to stay overnight on the Plains.

Warlick didn't plan on viewing a movie in her hotel room. She said the game film was already uploaded to her laptop for her overnight viewing.

In terms of matters to address when the Lady Vols retake the practice court, Warlick may want to scribble a list. At the top would be rebounding and getting back on defense.

In the first half, Warlick watched players who were doing neither, leading her to call a quick timeout with Tennessee down 8-2 less than four minutes into the game.

"If we're not rebounding and you're not getting back, where are you?" Warlick said.

The answer was jogging down court somewhere between the opposing arc lines.

"That wasn't our game plan; I promise you that," Warlick said.

Warlick was thrilled with the win but honest in her assessment of her team, especially the somnambulant start.

"That was an emphasis we've been working on - getting back, stopping the ball early, not giving up layups, not giving up threes," Warlick said. "I think when the ball went up, we weren't ready to play. That simple."

Those were the words of the winning coach.

The losing coach, Terri Williams-Flournoy, saluted her team's effort and lamented the long minutes logged by her starters.

"I thought our young ladies came out and played extremely hard, playing with a lot of confidence," Williams-Flournoy said. " … I thought our girls felt really confident and they played very, very hard, especially a lot of our starters who were playing a lot of minutes.

"We as coaches have to do a better job of managing their minutes. That's too many minutes for them to play."

Tennessee's starters also logged a lot of minutes, but Auburn played a pressing zone trap for nearly the entire game, and it caused fits for the Lady Vols to the tune of 19 turnovers, with 10 coming from the starting backcourt.

After the early timeout by Warlick, the Lady Vols threw away the ball and Auburn hit a three on the other end for a 11-2 lead at the 15:43 mark of the first half.

By halftime the Lady Vols had trimmed the deficit to five points, 32-27, despite the post players shooting 0-8, due to stellar jump shooting by Meighan Simmons and Ariel Massengale, who combined to shoot 7-11 from the field before the break. It was the first time this season both Isabelle Harrison and Bashaara Graves struggled in a game.

"Not too often do our inside players not score in the first half," Warlick said. "We're an inside team. Everybody knows we like to go inside."

The Lady Vols got great looks inside, but the layups misfired, which added to the players' frustration on both ends of the floor.

"I think we missed three or four, we just missed," Warlick said. "I go back to saying I think Auburn had a lot to do with (Tennessee) rushing shots (inside). They had a game plan and it worked well."

Auburn, under first-year head coach Williams-Flournoy, plays the way her teams did at Georgetown - a pressing, scrambling and trapping defense.

"I thought we were flat, and I think Auburn had a lot to do with how we were playing," Warlick said.

That is a dangerous combination on the road - lethargic against an energized and pressing home team, and the Lady Vols left the court at halftime with a box score full of bad stats.

They were down on the boards, 22-19. Auburn had outscored them in the paint, 16-2. Tennessee had zero second-chance points to 10 for the Tigers. Auburn converted eight Tennessee turnovers into 12 points. The Lady Vols got just five points off seven Tiger miscues.

"We just challenged our players," Warlick said. "They were aggressive, we weren't, and we just can't do that."

So how did Tennessee win the game?

The offense of Simmons. And the defense of Jasmine Jones.

The junior took a seat on the bench early in the second half after two consecutive ill-advised shots, but Warlick got Simmons reinserted after a brief respite.

"I think Meighan's really tough on herself, and you just have to calm her down," Warlick said. "She needs to focus on her defense, and her offense will come. … You've just got to calm her down."

Simmons agreed with that assessment in a sentence nearly as long as the length of the court and said as fast she gets down it.

"The coaches just told me to relax and make sure I was doing everything I could to help the team and not have a bad attitude or anything like that and just don't get down on myself because I feel like after awhile I was turning the ball over and I wasn't doing the things to help the team out and I just got down on myself," Simmons said.

"They told me to relax and let the game come to me and continue to play."

Simmons' steal and and-one play energized the Lady Vols when they were still down in the second half, 45-38, with 11:32 left to play.

The steal, swooping layup and free throw pulled the Lady Vols to 45-41 and shifted momentum to Tennessee.

"It was huge," Taber Spani said. "I think right before that media timeout, I was like, ‘Meighan, go get a signature Meighan Simmons play,' and that was how she's turned it up in her junior year playing defense.

"And she got a steal and then made that and-one. It was huge for us."

The other standout defensive play was made by Jones, who stripped Najat Ouardad, secured the loose ball and passed ahead to Kamiko Williams, who tied the game at 49 with 9:22 left to play.

"Defense wins games," Jones said. "I just have to go out and play defense to the best of my potential."

Jones did just that and her pressure on the ball helped her teammates get stops behind her and allowed Tennessee to catch up and then overtake Auburn.

"It was great," Spani said. "The message being preached was, ‘What are we doing? Let's play hard.' And when Jas came in, she had some great defense and caused two or three steals and that kind of helped us get back in the game and then opened it up."

Ouardad had been getting to the rim at ease against Tennessee's guards, which forced the posts to leave their player to help. Ouardad either finished the play or dished to a teammate and finished with 11 points and eight assists.

But the driving lanes shut down when the 6-2 Jones picked up the 5-1 Ouardad just past center court. It is not an easy feat for a forward to stick to a point guard, but Jones has shown the willingness to do so.

"She's tall, athletic and I thought we needed a change-up on the point guard," Warlick said. "I thought she was too comfortable, and I thought Jasmine could make a difference on the ball."

While Jones was doing her part to stymie Auburn's offense, Simmons did her part to jump start Tennessee's.

The junior guard drained back-to-back deep threes in the second half - the first came after Jones forced Ouardad into a turnover - to pull Tennessee to within one, 45-44, and then to tie the game at 47.

That opened up opportunities for teammates and when Auburn surged to a 53-49 lead, Massengale connected on two free throws and hit a three for a 56-53 lead with 6:08 to play. The Lady Vols never trailed again in the game.

The game was reminiscent of the way the Lady Vols looked against Stanford - that was the first time Warlick said she had to coach effort with her team.

"Obviously, we didn't play, besides a five- or seven-minute segment, the way we wanted to, and so we've just got to go back to work," Spani said.

The difference in this game is that the Lady Vols found a way to recover before the clock hit zero.

"It's a big road win," Simmons said. "I feel like every win we get on the road is a big road win."

Simmons also saluted the freshman who was sitting with her at the post-game press conference.

"I think with Jasmine playing defense the way she did, I credit her because she forgets the potential she has to do those things that she can do best," Simmons said. I give her a lot of credit tonight."

Harrison and Graves also should be credited with showing some resiliency. Though they combined to shoot 3-15 from the field - most of the misses were at the rim - they also combined to grab 22 rebounds with each snaring 11.

That led to Tennessee winning on the boards overall, 37-33. The Lady Vols also capitalized on the Tigers' turnovers in the second half with 21 points off 13 miscues after the break.

But the player who ultimately won the game for Tennessee was Simmons. Without the junior guard shooting 10-14 from the field and 5-5 from the line, the Lady Vols leave the Plains with a loss.

Simmons was called on to shoot the free throws off a team technical foul on Auburn - the Tigers were assessed for having six players on the court, but Williams-Flournoy said one official signaled the substitution while another handed the ball to Tennessee to in-bound. The coach had a valid argument, but the technical stood and Simmons drained both free throws for a 60-55 lead with 5:03 left in the game.

Williams-Flournoy understood the overall impact of Simmons on the game. It was the best back-to-back games of her career, as Simmons put up 27 points against Florida.

"You're not going to keep Meighan Simmons under wraps," she said. "We aren't and no other team in the SEC is. She's just too good of a player."


Game highlights from utsportstv

Meighan Simmons, Taber Spani, Jasmine Jones

Holly Warlick

Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy

Auburn players Blanche Alverson, Najat Ouardad

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