When Simmons picked up her fifth foul in Sunday's 80-64 win over Arizona State, a television camera showed Pat Summitt, who was smiling, put her arm around the youngster when Simmons came to the bench and talk to her.
"She looked like a freshman (Sunday)," Summitt said, again with the smile. "I think that's typical. She obviously is a terrific athlete and makes a lot of good things happen but at the same time she's got a lot to learn."
One of the things to learn is playing with four other people on the court, something every freshman has to adjust to in college. Sophomore Kamiko Williams went through the process last season – in high school she was her team's offense, as is the case with the majority of the players on Tennessee's roster – and she has made improvements this season. It's not selfishness – it's a desire to make something happen and feeling the urgency to help the team.
"That's an adjustment for every freshman," Simmons said. "Because you were the team, you pretty much did everything that you could to help your team win. But when you have a group of girls (this talented), I think you've got to learn everyone else. You've got to know who can shoot and who can go to the basket. I think that's a total adjustment for all freshmen."
Tennessee is a veteran team but several of those experienced players are hobbled or still out in Alyssia Brewer (surgery in September), Kelley Cain (limited by sore hip) and Vicki Baugh (missed last three games with hip/iliotibial band soreness).
Simmons is a first-year player, Williams is just starting her second year, and Taber Spani, also a sophomore, was limited for the last half of the 2009-10 season with turf toe. All three of those players are logging significant minutes this season.
That means the players are getting used to different combinations on the floor, while the coaches are also sorting out early in the season which combos work the best in various situations.
"I think once we get in the flow of playing with each other I think our whole mentality is going to change," Simmons said.
Simmons' teammates have embraced her and seek to encourage her on the court when she gets frustrated. The juniors on this team were thrust into a lot of responsibility as freshmen and they understand the inevitable ups and downs for a young player.
Spani could be seen talking to Simmons several times during Sunday's game.
"She was encouraging me," Simmons said. "She was talking to me through the whole defensive thing. She was reminding me where I needed to be and when I needed to be there."
Simmons, who scored 22 and 26 points in the first two games still reached double figures in the next two with 12 and 10 points, but she stayed in foul trouble in the fourth game and logged just 14 minutes.
"I just go up to her and say, ‘Hey, calm down. Let the game come to you,' " junior Shekinna Stricklen said. "She's a freshman, but she's stepped up a lot. She's still got a lot to learn. She sometimes likes to play a little bit by herself but I told her you always know we're going to give you the ball.
"But she has stepped up a lot. When she's down we talk to her and say, ‘Hey, as a freshman you cannot show that you're down because they will take advantage of that.' We keep telling her, ‘Keep your head up,' and we've just got to keep encouraging her."
Stricklen knows what it's like to have high expectations as a freshman. She entered college as a small forward and has been the primary point guard. She is getting more help this season from Briana Bass, who entered in relief in the first half Sunday, and Williams and Simmons in some offensive sets. The team's other true point guard, Lauren Avant, remains out with a right ankle sprain and didn't make the trip to the islands as she is still on crutches.
"(Bree) came in and gave me a breather, and she did good," Stricklen said. "That's good to have other point guards who can keep the tempo going, pushing the ball like they're supposed to and picking up the ball and pressuring it. I'm able to get on the wing sometimes. We just want to get the ball and go. We want to push it at all times."
Tennessee has accelerated the offensive pace this season. The Lady Vols needed all of two seconds to score after a made Arizona State free throw when Spani fired a football pass nearly the length of the court and hit Simmons in stride for a layup.
"She adds a lot of quickness, a player that can just get and go," Stricklen said of Simmons. "She's a shooter, too. People can't just deny Angie and leave someone else open. She's a great shooter. That's a big plus for us."
Angie Bjorklund was smothered by Sun Devils defenders on Sunday, a process made easier for Arizona State by the placement of Simmons on the bench with early fouls.
In past games that could have led to offensive struggles for Tennessee but five players hit double figures – three starters in Glory Johnson, Stricklen and Simmons and two substitutes in Spani and Williams.
Summitt scheduled a film session with Simmons before practice Monday to watch clips from Sunday's game. Summitt said during her Monday media teleconference that Simmons needed "more discipline and focus on shot selection." In Sunday's game, Simmons forced the offensive action late, as she tried to make up for minutes missed with the foul trouble.
"Not trying so hard to do too much and staying focused on what I need to do and not going out there and rushing everything," Simmons said of the lessons imparted during that session.
Simmons said she also is leaning on her teammates.
"Depend on my teammates to help lift me up, focus on what I need to do, try to change my mindset during the game, what is it that I can do to get myself back in the game," Simmons said.
Simmons' feelings are shown clearly via her facial expressions, a remark that brought a smile from the freshman.
"I need to stop it," Simmons said. "Because I don't want my expression to be toward the ref and it's being (interpreted) in a disrespectful way. That's just my way of showing how intense I am about playing. I think that's something I need to learn not to do especially (in reaction to a foul). I just need to move on."
Simmons also has to somehow not get overwhelmed by the responsibility thrust upon her early. It is especially difficult for a first-year player to absorb all the offensive and defensive terminology.
"I pray every day," Simmons said. "I ask God there is so much expected of me, help me to not be so overwhelmed by it. Be able to take it in as them wanting me to be a leader on the floor."
Summitt would much rather deal with an overeager player than one whose engine constantly has to be started by the coaching staff.
"She's been like a little spitfire out there on the court," Alicia Manning said. "She has such a quick first step, and she just plays really hard. I am really proud of her." Summitt also has entrusted the freshman with considerable early playing time.
"It means a lot," Simmons said. "I never thought that I would come in here and play as much as I do. Coach Pat just wants to depend on me for certain situations, and I think that comes with a lot of expectations as well.
"Starting off my confidence was at a really high level and I'm trying to keep it up there. That builds my confidence even more (when Summitt bestows that trust)."
Johnson can also be a sympathetic ear for Simmons. Johnson had a lot of expectations in her first year – especially being from Knoxville and playing in her hometown – and she has worked two years to get her game in sync with her athletic ability. Simmons has gone from joining a veteran team to becoming a starter by the second game of the season.
"At first I think she didn't really know what her role on the team would be, and she's done that plus more," Johnson said. "She's shown us that she can be a driver, she can be a shooter, she even posts up every once in a while. She can do a little bit of everything, and she brings a lot to our team. She's really athletic.
"Sometimes she can relate to me because I'm quick and sometimes I'm out of control. She's really quick. She brings a lot to the team, and I'm glad that she chose to come to Tennessee. She can relate to me, and I can relate to her."
Tennessee's depth is a strong point this season but still hasn't completely emerged. As the posts get healthy, there will be more players that will have to share minutes. Johnson shows the maturity of a junior when asked how the team will handle that this season.
"I think we know we're going to have to share minutes and whoever is out there working the hardest and whoever is getting the job done is going to get the minutes," Johnson said. "Everyone should understand it's not all about playing time. It's about being successful as a team, not too much as an individual.
"Whatever it takes for our team to win a game is who is going to be out there playing. You've got to understand. If you're here for the team and not for yourself individually then you'd understand."
Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss hasn't seen any signs of selfishness among the team.
"No question. In fact some of the time we'll overpass," DeMoss said. "We'll penetrate in there and we have the shot, and we're looking to try to find the post or sometimes we'll get it inside to a post and they kick it back out too quickly at times. I thought we went through a little spell (Sunday) where we over-passed."
There should be plenty of minutes to go around at the Paradise Jam with three games in three consecutive days. The format is the same as the SEC tourney and also reminded the players of their days in AAU.
"In high school and AAU, I felt like it was easy," Johnson said. "You can play three games. It was no big deal. The college level when you're playing at this high-octane level you're giving it everything you have for 40 minutes. Being able to sub people out, save their legs a little bit, is really going to help."
Manning also said the format reminded her of AAU days in the summer and added that the key is to just play each possession and not think ahead.
"I think it depends on the player," Manning said when asked if the challenge is more physical or mental. "Some of us, we can go all day but others it's more of a mental and physical thing for them."
Put Manning in the category of go all out. Her knees bear old scars, new scrapes and an assortment of bruises.
"This is life, really," Manning said.
"I think it's a little bit of both," Johnson said. "Because you have to tell yourself you can keep going. It's kind of like AAU days when you play game after game after game in the tournaments. Your team has to be able to rely on you to go.
"That's what we condition for every day, and that's what Heather Mason prepared us for. We'll see how it goes. I'm sure we'll be ready for it."
"I think it'll be good," Stricklen said. "Everyone has to step up. Everyone will need everyone, especially playing three games back to back to back like that. If someone can't go play 30 or 40 minutes every night, when someone subs in they've got to keep the tempo going."
"I am looking forward to it," Simmons said. "That's going to be another adjustment, too, because when you play every day that's mental. Your body is going to feel like you're exhausted but mentally you just have to say, ‘Well, I am going to play every game, play every possession hard and not worry.' "
The opponents are also relatively new for Tennessee. The Lady Vols have played Missouri just twice with both games in 1978. Tennessee has played Georgia Tech just three times in 1987, 1988 and 1989. The Lady Vols have never played Georgetown.
"I kind of like that," Summitt said. "Playing teams we haven't played is a good thing because it's the unknown. The scouting part of it – we're going to go in there and not have as much information as we normally would. That's going to benefit us long range, playing someone outside of our conference.
"I think our team is excited about going down there. Let's just hope we can keep everything in perspective."
Before the team departed, the players indicated they were excited about being in a tropical setting for the games – Jenny Moshak's mandatory cold whirlpools between games should be easier to endure – but they also knew that basketball had to be the top priority if they wanted a pleasant trip.
"I've been down there once before and it's beautiful," said Bjorklund, who traveled to the area with her family years ago while on vacation. "I love the area.
"I think it's good preparation for the SEC (tourney). I thought the Louisville game was a great environment. Now, this three games in a row our bodies will get used to it and how it feels, especially for the freshmen, for Meighan she's going to know, ‘OK, come SEC time I do have to get in that cold whirlpool.'
"I think it's just taking care of your body down there, and we'll be good."
Bjorklund agreed that the climate should make those whirlpools more tolerable.
"Right, exactly, and then I'll go lay out in the sun," Bjorklund said. "No, I'm kidding. Basketball first. Basketball does definitely come first."
The players are used to being away from family at Thanksgiving – they usually have home or away games – and often some family members made the shorter trips to see them at Thanksgiving. But with games scheduled at a site well off the mainland, most won't see their families until Christmas. Cain's father, Harold Cain, will at least have some holiday leftovers after Thursday. Last Christmas, his daughter packed up the food and returned to Knoxville with the goodies.
"I told them they could still send me some if they want," Kelley Cain said.
Several beach activities are scheduled for Sunday, including snorkeling, before the team returns to Knoxville, and while practice was scheduled for Wednesday, that still left considerable free time for the players before the games start Thursday evening.
"I think we'll learn a lot from that trip because we'll have the three games," Summitt said. "That's going to be a place where our coaches are going to learn as well as our players."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 junior guard/forward, No. 40 (12.3 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game, 2.3 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 10 (17.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.3 apg); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 senior guard, No. 5 (14.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.8 apg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 junior forward, No. 25 (7.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.5 steals per game); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt junior center, No. 52 (7.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.0 blocks per game).
Missouri Coach Robin Pingeton is expected to start: RaeShara "Rae Rae" Brown, 5'8 senior guard, No. 23 (16.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 6.5 apg, 3.5 spg), hails from Little Rock, Ark., nearly tallied a triple double this season against Eastern Illinois with 14 points, 11 boards and eight assists, started all 30 games last season, needs 51 steals to hold the all-time school record of 249, scored over 1,600 points in high school and won three state titles, Bekah Mills, 5'9 redshirt junior guard, No. 1 (4.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.0 apg), hails from Towanda, Kansas, missed the 2009-10 season because of an ACL injury, played the 2008-09 season, missed the 2007-08 season because of an ACL injury, played 33 minutes in the 2010-11 season opener against Memphis, averaged 21.2 ppg in high school, also played volleyball and was class valedictorian; Jasmyn Otote, 5'9 senior guard, No. 10 (7.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg), hails from Duncanville, Texas, played in all 30 games last season and started two at Nebraska and at Texas, hit four 3-pointers in the upset of Baylor, played at Duncanville High School, the alma mater of former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings; Shakara Jones, 6'2 senior forward, No. 44 (7.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg), hails from St. Charles, Mo., started 29 of 30 games last season, 60 points shy of 1,000 for her career, scored in double figures 10 times last season, including against Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State, 2007 Miss Show-Me Basketball in state of Missouri, scored 2,439 points in high school, father Ron Jones played basketball at Missouri from 1981 to 1984, mother Anita Squires-Jones also graduated from Mizzou; and Christine Flores, 6'3 junior forward, No. 50 (20.5 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 3.0 bpg), hails from San Antonio, Texas, scored a career-high 28 points this season against Eastern Illinois with 26 coming in the second half, played in 30 games last season, started eight, had 15 points, nine rebounds in upset of Baylor, scored 1,998 points in high school to set the all-time scoring record at Winston Churchill High School.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Missouri game. Here is her assessment.
When Missouri has the ball: "They do like to push in transition," DeMoss said. "They like to get up and down the floor. They run a lot of motion-type offense, not a lot of structured set patterns. We're going to have to be ready for quick shots. Quick movement and quick shots.
"They've got two really outstanding players in Christine Flores – she's averaging 20 points a game – and RaeShara Brown, and she's averaging almost 17 points a game. Those two kids are really putting up big numbers for them so far, so we're going to have to certainly be aware of where they are and do a good job of defending them."
Defensively, "I've seen man to man primarily and just a little bit of zone," DeMoss said. "They seem to be more comfortable in their man to man, but I've only seen two games."
Missouri has played just two games this season, both on the road – a 67-40 win over Memphis on Nov. 12 in which the Tigers grabbed 54 rebounds, and an 81-73 loss to Eastern Illinois on Nov. 14 in which the Tigers, led by Flores, went on a 17-4 run in the second half to get to within one point of Eastern Illinois. Missouri scored 52 points in the second half.
"That is what we're anticipating is more man than zone," DeMoss said. "They extend it a little bit. They did against Memphis. They picked up some full court man to man and kept pressure on the point guard. It's something that we've seen. The Arizona State game is going to help prepare us for Missouri."
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols have several scoring options this season and have had different players step up in various games. As a team Tennessee is shooting 47.3 percent from the field.
"We are shooting the ball well," DeMoss said. "I thought (Shekinna) Stricklen finished well (against ASU). I thought Taber Spani shot well. They really had (Angie) Bjorklund pretty much on lockdown. She was the focal point of their defense, so we had other people step up.
"Glory Johnson stepped up big. That's the mark of a great team is when one player is taken out of the equation then you've got other players who can step up and make plays."
Defensively,, the coaching staff will want the players to extend their pressure but also are aware of the fact that there are three consecutive games.
"This tournament is all about endurance and depth, because you do play three games in three days but so does everybody else," DeMoss said. "So you have to be smart about how you substitute, you've got to be smart about how you press, about how much you even apply pressure in your half-court defense. You've got to find a way to conserve energy and still win games."
ON TAP: Tennessee is the only SEC team in action Thursday.
On Friday, 10 SEC teams take the court: Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech; Alabama vs. Florida State in the Bahamas; Arkansas vs. High Point in El Paso, Texas; Auburn vs. Sacred Heart in the Bahamas; Florida vs. South Alabama in Orono, Maine; Georgia vs. Denver in Los Angeles; Kentucky vs. Murray State in Hattiesburg, Miss.; LSU vs. Lehigh in Storrs, Conn.; South Carolina at Stanford; and Quinnipiac at Vanderbilt.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with Missouri, 2-0. The teams last played in 1978, a 101-83 win for Tennessee in Stokely Athletics Center on Jan. 14. Tennessee traveled to Missouri for a game on Dec. 9, 1978, and won 74-61. Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick was the starting point guard for the Lady Vols in both games. … Tennessee is 9-1 in games played on November 25. The last game on this date was in 2009, a 69-52 win over Middle Tennessee. The first win on this date was against Notre Dame, 71-56, in 1983. The one loss on November 25 came against Texas, 74-59, in 2004. … Tennessee last played in the Paradise Jam in 2005. The Lady Vols won three games that year against Michigan State, Gonzaga and Maryland. … Missouri Coach Robin Pingeton is in her first year at the helm for the Tigers. She was hired last April after seven years as the head coach at Illinois State, which she led to three straight Missouri Valley Conference regular season titles, two State Farm Missouri Valley Tournament championships, two NCAA Tournament berths and three WNIT appearances. Pingeton was selected Missouri Valley Coach of the Year in 2004 and 2010. … Missouri will play its first seven games away from home this season. The Tigers played at Memphis and at Eastern Illinois before they headed to the Virgin Islands for three games against Tennessee, Georgetown and Georgia Tech. After returning to the States, Missouri plays at Ball State and at Northwestern before finally hosting Tennessee-Martin, the alma mater of Pat Summitt, on Dec. 7.