Freshman ready for home state debut

Two years ago, Meighan Simmons sat on the second row in Texas and watched a Tennessee team she desperately wanted to join but which didn't have another scholarship. That same afternoon, Cait McMahan came out of the Lady Vols locker room and took a seat on the bench, her creaky knees making her a second-half spectator.

The two events would seem unrelated at the time but two years later Meighan Simmons will be on the court for the Lady Vols against the Longhorns while Cait McMahan went on medical scholarship and completed her degree last May.

McMahan's paperwork officially was completed in the summer of 2009, and by then the coaching staff had settled on a short list of combo guards and could add a recruit to what had been a class of one in Lauren Avant, a point guard from Memphis who had committed at the age of 14.

Simmons got a big boost on the list when Candace Parker saw her play in a summer AAU game and called Pat Summitt to rave about the 5'9 guard, who was being persistently pursued by LSU and Big 12 schools.

Summitt and Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood went to visit Simmons in September of 2009 in her hometown of Cibolo, Texas, near San Antonio, she visited Knoxville the following October with her family and a few days later committed and signed in November of 2009.

But a year before inking her name on an LOI to the Lady Vols, Simmons, sitting with her father Wayne Simmons, watched Tennessee lose to Texas on Dec. 14, 2008, in a game in which Summitt said her team never should have left the locker room at halftime. After playing Texas to a 31-31 tie in the first half, the Lady Vols self-destructed in the second half – going 8-18 from the free throw line – and lost 73-59 at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin.

"Two years ago I remember sitting in that arena and watching them play for the first time and I remember telling my dad, ‘Dad, I am going to play for them one day,' " Simmons said Thursday after a lengthy and up-tempo practice in Pratt Pavilion. "I was telling my dad, ‘Dad, they can't hit a free throw.' And that was one of things that killed us in the game.

"I said, ‘Dad, if I ever go there, I want to encourage everybody, ‘Hit your free throws,' because it can be critical during the game, especially when we're there, to get back up," Simmons said. "It all starts with free throws, rebounding and defense all the time."

It is now readily apparent why Parker endorsed Simmons and why Summitt does, too, and moved the freshman into the starting lineup in her second career game.

"It didn't take me long to recognize that Meighan is a great competitor and I think she has inspired our team," Summitt said during her media teleconference this week, a session that included several reporters from Austin and San Antonio who asked about Simmons.

"Very seldom do you have a freshman come in and start in this program. She came in and there was no doubt in my mind that she needed to be in the lineup because of her skill set and speed. She is one of the quickest players that I have ever coached and she brings it every day. We have to slow her down. Most of the time we have to speed people up.

"But Meighan, she can go 100 miles per hour and get into the paint and get to the rim. I didn't realize how great of a player she was going to be for us – she is special."

It also didn't take long for Simmons to figure out Summitt – go hard all the time and it starts in practice. Those two situations – Simmons understanding Summitt and the coach recognizing a special player – are very much intertwined.

"Pat expects you to work hard 24/7, be invested, be committed," Simmons said. "You have to want to go out there and win. Give it your all so you can help your teammates.

"With me I love a disciplined coach like that and she knows that every day I am going to come in, no matter if I'm sick, no matter what is going on with me, I have to go out there and give it 100 percent."

That attitude, and her considerable skill set and speed, have set up Simmons to return to her home state not just as a member of the Tennessee team but a starter and one playing a significant role. Simmons is the team's leading scorer at 16.8 points per game, and she also leads the team in assists with 25.

"It makes me feel proud and I think just from the support of everybody else it makes them feel proud as well," Simmons said. "I am just going to go out there and play hard 24/7 and not let the game overtake me."

Simmons was asked how many family and friends would be present, and she shook her head and smiled.

"I don't know," Simmons said. "I would just say it was an entourage of people. That's what my mom (Karolyn Simmons) said – family, friends, football team, high school basketball team, my coach, my AAU coach, my AAU teammates, everybody."

Parker also will be in attendance. Parker, a former Lady Vol All-American, shuttles between Los Angeles and Denver, where husband Shelden Williams plays for the Nuggets. Texas is the closest game for Parker to attend this season.

A freshman playing on the road – especially one who has now started just one game at point guard – already has a lot to block out. Simmons also must somehow not let the presence of her family and friends and Parker distract her.

"I have played in front of Candace before," Simmons said. "It's nothing new. You don't have to worry about little things like that that can take you out of your game and what you really need to do and what you really need to focus on. Yeah, I am going to see everybody after the game but my main focus is going there, beating Texas, beating Baylor, doing whatever we have to do to be successful."

It is rather ironic, considering the scenario of two years ago, that if Tennessee does well on this road trip Simmons will play a key role.

"Tennessee, I wasn't even a thought," Simmons said of that December day in 2008 when she watched the Lady Vols.

Also, ironically, Texas is led by its own super frosh in Chassidy Fussell, the 2010 Tennessee Class AA Miss Basketball from Obion County High School in Troy, Tenn. Fussell is averaging 16 points and 5.8 rebounds a game for the Longhorns.

"We were interested in her but I think that when looking at the roster and seeing where we were with our guard play I felt like we were pretty heavy there and we still are," Summitt said in her teleconference about Fussell. "There is no doubt that she could have played here, and impacted our team as well."

Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss was on Texas' staff during the recruitment of Fussell.

"I was a part of that, but (Assistant Coach) LaKale Malone, who is from Murfreesboro, had a big part in that as well," DeMoss said.

Tennessee wasn't actively recruiting Fussell – or Simmons, for that matter – because there were no spots open until McMahan had to stop playing. Fussell committed to Texas in July of 2009, the paperwork on McMahan was officially completed that same summer and the Lady Vols pursued Simmons shortly thereafter.

"I thank God for that," Simmons said.

Simmons looked over a roster of the Texas team and rattled off nearly every name as either someone she played with or knew while growing up in San Antonio.

Simmons won't be the only athlete in the family getting attention this weekend. One of her brothers, Ryan Simmons, a linebacker, is playing in the 5A football playoffs on Saturday for Steele High School in Waco. The family intends to be present for both games.

"I told my brother don't even get hyped about me playing," Simmons said. "You just go out there and play football, and I'll play basketball."

This time in Austin, Simmons won't be sitting two rows behind the Texas bench – or even worse for Tennessee on Texas' bench – but instead will be in Lady Vol orange. But even two years ago Simmons had a good view – and a good read – of a freshman-laden team.

"We were in the game but there was a point in time where it looked like everybody just wasn't one," Simmons said of that 2008 Tennessee-Texas game. "It seemed like one was going one way, the other was going another, and nobody could hit a free throw.

"This year I think everybody's mentality has changed. It's all a different point of view. We just have to go out there and play hard."

Simmons will take the court as the starting point guard, a major role for any player and especially a freshman more accustomed to playing on the wing. Backup will come from Briana Bass, Kamiko Williams and Avant, who has returned to practice after missing nearly three weeks with a severe ankle sprain. Shekinna Stricklen also has considerable experience at the point spot – the most of anyone on the roster – but is much more at ease off the ball.

"It's just a mentality thing," Simmons said. "If Pat puts me somewhere then I am going to have to learn it. If I don't get it right then she's going to be put somebody in my position. You just have to give it your all and learn something new and be able to be versatile in every part of the game.

"If I wanted to I could play a four. If I wanted to, a five, anything. But the perimeter is where everything happens for me because of my size. Learning this new role, I am learning from Strick, I am learning from Bree, I am learning from Miko, Lauren, learning how to go to the basket, hitting the open man, being able to keep from getting trapped."

A freshman point guard can expect to have opponents come after her, especially on the road, but Summitt just smiled.

"You know what?" Summitt said. "They've got to catch her first."

VIDEO COVERAGE: Video clips of Thursday's practice plus remarks from Pat Summitt.

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