Tennessee takes out Texas

AUSTIN, Texas - Before the game started Meighan Simmons' parents stood behind the bench to say hello and thank you to Candace Parker, who was surrounded by autograph seekers. It was Parker who called Pat Summitt to encourage her to take Meighan Simmons, who two years after sitting in the stands wishing she could play for Tennessee, was on the court for Sunday's 92-77 win over Texas.

Meighan Simmons had her own cheering section at the game as family and friends erupted when the starting lineup was announced.

Two years ago Simmons sat behind the Texas bench with her father, watched Tennessee lose, wished she was being recruited by the Lady Vols and vowed to play for them somehow.

On Sunday, she tallied 18 points, several generated by her afterburners speed, to help the Lady Vols improve to 9-1 on the season against Texas, 5-3.

In 2008, the Lady Vols didn't have any scholarships - the lone one available belonged to point guard Lauren Avant - but balky knees ended Cait McMahan's career, and Pat Summitt needed a guard. She was already aware of Simmons, and a phone call from Parker, needless to say, carried considerable weight, too.

Texas Coach Gail Goestenkors also was aware of Simmons, but she had said to the Texas schools that she was headed out of state. LSU seemed to be the destination until Tennessee entered late and within weeks Simmons was signed to be a Lady Vol.

"We looked at her a good bit; she just didn't look at us," Goestenkors said with a smile. "Early on she said and her coaches said that she was going to go out of state, so we never felt like we were really in the mix with her, but we certainly tried. She's a great player."

Summitt used nearly her entire roster - 11 players logged minutes in the first half - with the plan being to wear down the Longhorns, which were missing two reserves, freshman post Anne Marie Hartung to a viral infection and freshman guard Tiffany Moore to a two-game suspension for an off-court issue.

A 48-42 game at halftime was broken open midway through the second half by Tennessee for a 92-77 final.

"I was proud overall with the way the team battled," Goestenkors said. "We kept hanging in and fighting back, and we hit that spell in the second half, where I thought we hit the wall. It doesn't take long against a great team like Tennessee where a six-point lead becomes a 16-point lead so that was a tough stretch for us.

"But I think we will learn a great deal from this game. It was a tough game for us. They have so much depth and they're so talented and then to have a couple of our players out I think made it much more difficult for us."

Tennessee made use of that depth before halftime, but the starters had to log a lot of minutes - Kamiko Williams went 37 minutes, a feat she could not have performed last season in terms of conditioning - and only one reserve played double-digit minutes with the 15 logged by Taber Spani.

"I think our depth definitely helped us in this game," Summitt said. "There's no doubt. Being able to rotate and keep people fresh. I did not see people really giving in to fatigue. I thought when we needed to pull someone we did. We were very focused on what we needed to do and not the fatigue factor."

Kelley Cain came close to double digits with nine minutes and would have played more, but she went out in the second half after getting clipped on a box-out and suffering a right hip contusion, an injury on top of an already sore hip that has hindered her for weeks.

The 6'6 center was in tremendous pain and needed assistance to leave the court both immediately after the injury and after the game to get from the sideline to the locker room. She was officially listed as day to day.

Cain was effective in her minutes with eight points on 4-6 shooting, two blocks, a board and an assist on a kickout to Angie Bjorklund.

Bjorklund also made use of two Cain screens - one high and one low - that led to a nifty reverse layup. Bjorklund scored 20 points, all in the first half, and hit 4-8 from behind the arc to bring her to within seven treys of the school record of 266. After misfiring early to open the game - she started 0-4 and then hit eight of her next 10 shots - Bjorklund got into a groove and hit big shots in the first half when Texas kept threatening to take the lead.

"I missed my first couple of shots and they (coaches and teammates) continued to have confidence in me and say, ‘Stop thinking and just keep shooting the ball,' " said Bjorklund, whose parents Jim and Kris Bjorklund made the trip from Spokane Valley, Wash. "So that helped a lot."

Bjorklund was joined in double figures by the four other starters - Simmons with 18 points, Williams with 14, Glory Johnson with 13 and Shekinna Stricklen with 10, putting the junior forward from Morrilton, Ark., just 20 points shy of 1,000 for her career.

"Obviously I am really pleased with how our team competed," Summitt said in her opening statement. "I thought just being able to get five people in double figures was really key for us. We had some really good balance. I liked the energy level that we played at and I thought we maintained that throughout the game. We had some people come off the bench and do a good job as well.

"Big win for us. Obviously Texas has a great team and for us to come on the road to have the mindset we had I am happy for this basketball team and our program."

Stricklen, for the second game in a row, did most of her damage with midrange shots, post-ups and stick-backs and also completed an and-one on a transition drive to the basket. Tennessee edged Texas on the boards, 43-37 - making up a four-rebound deficit at halftime - with Stricklen leading the way with 11 grabs.

"Can you believe that? They must have just fell in your hands," Summitt said to a smiling Stricklen. "The one thing about Strick she really likes not having to run that point and that gives her a chance to really attack the glass and use her pull-up game. I think her defense is better because of it. I like the position she's in right now."

In the span of two weeks, Stricklen has shifted from point guard to power forward in a rather seamless move.

"I am just trying to help out, especially with the injuries we have kind of with the posts," Stricklen said. "Just trying to help out until our posts get back. God just blessed me with this gift that I can play several positions and right now the team needs me inside. I'm a four but Coach has still given me the green light to step out, penetrate and create for my teammates."

Stricklen playing so much at the four spot limited Alicia Manning's minutes in this game to four as Summitt made situational substitutions.

"The one thing with Alicia is she's got to get extended range for her size," Summitt said. "She's (been) playing a lot in the paint. Our bigs right now are pretty imposing. I told her you've got to get in Pratt and get on the Gun (automatic ball feeder for shooters). I'd like to see her be able to shoot the three ball. There is still a place for her to step in and be very effective in certain situations."

When Bjorklund picked up a fourth foul with 8:35 left in the game, Spani entered for her and promptly hit a corner three.

Bjorklund added, "I think our depth is great. If one person is not hitting shots, another person is going to step up and when we're all hitting like (Sunday), that's great, too.

"With our depth we're able to sub and continue to run the ball. I thought Meighan did a great job of leaking out and getting some layups. We continued to attack and push the ball and at the same time getting stops on defense. I thought that was important."

When a Lady Vol gets a defensive board, especially a long one off a missed three, she is immediately looking down court for the player the team calls "Speedy" and "Toothpick," as the slender Simmons can zip to the basket.

"Pat has said she's the fastest guard that she's ever had play for her, and she's had a lot of good guards play for her so that's saying a good bit," Goestenkors said. "She gets out very, very well on the break for them."

Simmons' cheering section certainly liked her forays to the rim. The group included her parents, Wayne and Karolyn Simmons, and her younger brother, Ryan Simmons, whose team won its football game Saturday and next will play for a state title for Steele High School, among a host of other family and friends.

"I know I was glad to have my family there," said Simmons, who played three times in the Erwin Center in high school in the playoffs. "I haven't seen them in awhile. There was a lot of people."

Candace Parker was surrounded before the game by autograph seekers and patiently signed until near tip time, sometimes while holding daughter Lailaa in her left arm and writing with her right hand. Simmons' parents made it close enough to wave and send their blessings and thank yous.

"It's always been a dream of mine to come here and play for Pat Summitt," Simmons said. "Just her being disciplined with her girls and knowing what she wants. And she wants to go after a championship and that's one thing that I like about Coach Pat, and I just love my teammates, man, I love them to death."

With 18 points Simmons has now hit double figures in her first 10 Lady Vol games, tying her with Glory Johnson for freshman debuts and passing Parker at nine. The record is 14, held by Chamique Holdsclaw.

"The one thing about Meighan is she just loves the game, and she has tremendous energy, which I think really gets us going as well," Summitt said. "When I first saw her in high school I was like, ‘Wow, if we can get a player like that I think she can be a difference-maker.'

"She's really joined in with the other guards. It's been a great blend, and we're just thankful that she chose to come to Tennessee."

Simmons got a hearty cheer from the Tennessee fans among the 6,471 in attendance for the matinee tipoff, and the Texas fans let out an appreciative roar for Summitt in a series that has been played since 1978. Former Texas Coach Jody Conradt was among those in attendance.

Simmons got Tennessee on the board first with a steal and a layup, and while the Longhorns twice tied the game early at 2-2 and 11-11, the Lady Vols never trailed.

Williams boosted the lead to 8-2 on a pull-up jumper, putback and layup off a Bjorklund deflection, with Stricklen scooping up the ball and firing it to Williams.

Simmons connected from the corner and Bjorklund nailed a three off a loose ball, and Tennessee led 14-11 with 14:35 left in the first half. Simmons scored in transition and Alyssia Brewer, who logged four first-half minutes, showed the layoff didn't hurt her passing ability as she found a trailing Stricklen for an elbow jumper and an 18-11 lead with 13:42 before halftime.

At the 12:45 mark, Lauren Avant (two minutes) and Vicki Baugh (four minutes) also entered the game and Bjorklund sent a long pass to Baugh in transition for a 20-11 lead with 11:59 left in the first half.

Bjorklund, meanwhile, found an assortment of ways to score, from behind the arc to an up-and-under move, to a stick-back, to the use of two Cain's screens for a 38-30 lead with 4:28 remaining before the break.

Manning also entered in the first half and drove and dished to Johnson, and Spani, who hit the floor hard, causing blood to have to be cleaned off the court, connected on a short jumper for a 40-34 lead with 3:21 left in the first half.

Bjorklund found Cain inside for a 42-37 lead, and the center kicked out on the next possession and Bjorklund hit from long range for a 45-37 lead with 1:39 left before the halftime buzzer.

A Johnson free throw and a bank shot by Simmons in transition sent the team into the locker room with a 48-42 lead.

Tennessee needed all those points because Kathleen Nash was 4-6 from behind the arc for 16 first half points, though as a team Texas was 5-18 behind the arc (27.8 percent) before the break.

Tennessee's intent was to wear down the Longhorns over the course of the game, and Nash was 1-4 from long range in the second half while logging the entire 40 minutes. Ashley Gayle, who had 10 rebounds and six blocks, also went the distance.

"I don't think I wore down," Gayle said. "I did play a lot of minutes, but I think there were times we hit walls in the second half."

Johnson got going for Tennessee in the second half - she had zero rebounds at halftime - and Stricklen and Johnson scored the first four points for Tennessee after the break for a 52-42 lead with 18:49 left.

The lead didn't stay in double digits for long as Texas continued to hover with offense from Chassidy Fussell, a native Tennessean who scored 12 points after the break.

"She was nervous before the game, wanted to play well," Goestenkors said. "She was pressing. I thought she had a real nice second half offensively. Defensively, we've still got a good bit to work on."

Fussell was assigned to Simmons and several times shifted to the ball-handler when Williams penetrated and left her fellow freshman open behind the arc. Fussell also could not keep up with Simmons in the open court, but that's a steep task for any opponent.

Summitt opted to let Williams run the point for most of the game and allow Simmons some freedom on the wing.

"They are both great guards," Summitt said. "She did a nice job of distributing the ball. Meighan is so strong off of the dribble. She can get to the glass and she's a special player. That gives her an opportunity to do what she does best. She's in the attack mode all the time."

Williams had seven boards, four assists and zero turnovers to go with her 14 points. As a team, Tennessee had just 12 turnovers to 20 for Texas.

"I think this team, the guard play that we have, allows us to be out and really bring the heat early and pick up early," Summitt said. "Texas does a good job of pushing tempo, and we knew we had to match that intensity and slow them down. I thought we had some success there, but it was very important."

Tennessee kept that heat coming in the second half, especially with Simmons and her teammates running the floor. Bjorklund got a defensive board and fired a pass to Simmons for the layup and a 63-54 lead with 14:11 left.

When Simmons got loose again, she missed the layup trying to go behind her back and Cain, who got the defensive rebound and made the outlet pass, followed the play and hit the stick-back for a 65-54 lead with 13:44 left.

Yvonne Anderson hit a three for Texas to trim the lead to single digits, 65-57, but then Williams scored in transition and Cain hit a reverse layup, also in transition, for a 69-57 lead with 12:19 left.

Cain had back-to-back blocks on the other end but then crumbled to the court after getting clipped in the right hip on a box-out. Texas headed to the other end, behind at this point by just 69-61, while Cain was writhing in pain on the floor, and after Anderson missed a trey, Simmons got the defensive board and time was called.

Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, got to Cain's side - she had to wait for play to stop or a technical is called - and helped her to the sideline. Baugh, meanwhile, was already on the bench with ice bags along the side of her knee and IT band.

Tennessee has depth, but it's a qualified scenario given the comebacks from injury and now a hip contusion for Cain.

"Vicki and Kelley have been the two that we've had issues with and of course Lyssi is just now coming back," Summitt said. "There's three really big post players that can have a great presence that we didn't have that much of the time, but we will get them back and when we do obviously we should be a much better team. We've got to get healthy."

When Summitt was asked if that could be by March, she had no way to be certain.

"That's kind of a wait and see," Summitt said. "I think Baugh is probably a little bit ahead in that regard. A lot of it is weather and travel. We've got time to really work with them and hopefully as we go through this season we stay healthy and we get better."

The latest blow to Cain was particularly vexing because she had been moving fairly well in this game, and she can anchor the 2-3 matchup zone.

"When anyone on our team goes down your heart kind of drops and you just get this uneasy feeling," Bjorklund said. "But at the same time Kelley has been through a lot of injuries, and we know that she's going to do whatever it takes to get back and fight back."

Johnson reentered the game at the 10:18 mark to replace Cain and recorded a block, an assist and a steal after a quiet first half.

Bjorklund again found Simmons for a layup and the 74-63 lead with 8:50 left, and Tennessee never trailed again by less than double digits. When Bjorklund came out with four fouls, Spani subbed in and hit a corner three for a 77-64 lead with 8:08 left.

Johnson stole an entry pass, hit a layup off an offensive board and then hit a turn-around for an 86-67 lead with 5:18 left. Stricklen got a steal, drove the court, was being harassed on the way to the basket and flipped the ball behind her to Williams for the layup and a 90-69 lead with 3:08 left.

Williams finished the scoring for Tennessee with a drive and the 92-77 final.

"It's good to have all of that because if the inside game is not working, we just go outside," Stricklen said. "If the inside is working you work the ball and put it inside. Whichever one is on. We have it all. We have one of the tallest (teams), but we still have quickest. It's good to have it all."

It also helps the situation given the precarious state of Tennessee's bigs right now, and it makes the Lady Vols a difficult team to scout.

"Absolutely," Goestenkors said. "We didn't know which lineup they would start. They have changed their lineups a little bit recently. When Cain is in there they're so big and strong. When Stricklen is out on the perimeter, they're one of the toughest, tallest teams to guard.

"But lately they've been going a little bit smaller with Kamiko in there and Simmons and then they've got one of the quickest backcourts in the country and then they're not as big. Stricklen and Glory Johnson are matchup problems wherever they are because they are so athletic and Stricklen in particular because she can take you out and hit the three but she also can post up on the low block.

"It's tough to prepare for everything."

Turnovers have been a season-long issue for Texas and a recent one for Tennessee. The Lady Vols committed just 12 for the game and only five in the second half. Texas tallied 20, and the Lady Vols had a 23-8 margin in points off turnovers.

"We talked about it," Goestenkors said. "We're going to start running for our turnovers. We talked about it after the last game because it's a common thread among our games is that we continue to turn the ball over. When you're playing lesser opponents you can get away with it, but in the big games they make you pay for it.

"And Tennessee obviously made us pay for it. You can't give an opponent 23 points because you're not taking care of the basketball. Our turnovers tonight led to scores for them. It's not like to turned it over and threw it out of bounds. They absolutely led to run-outs for them and transition layups. When that happens it's very deflating to your team."

Texas also stopped venturing to the basket, as it did with success in the first half when Tennessee went to its matchup zone. Instead the Longhorns took threes - 9-32 for the game for 28.1 percent.

"We stopped attacking," Goestenkors said. "They went into their zone, and those were the looks that we were taking. I think we settled a little bit for the three. Kat was really the only one hitting the three for us, especially early on. Again, that's the mark of a young team. You're taking the first shot as opposed to the best shot. And once we got some ball reversals that's when we got some better looks.

"We'd lose our patience, we'd lose our poise and all of a sudden we'd start shooting off of one pass or no passes and those were contested shots."

The Longhorns had a 22-18 edge on the boards at halftime but Tennessee finished the game with a 43-37 lead with a game-high 11 rebounds from Stricklen, seven from Williams and five for Johnson.

The Lady Vols' control of the boards coincided with the expanded lead in the second half.

"I think two things happened when we got a little fatigued," Goestenkors said. "I think we started turning the ball over a little more and I think we stopped rebounding. We were up four at halftime, and they basically out-rebounded us by 10 in the second half. That can't happen.

"They did a great job, but you've got to make a commitment against a team like Tennessee to box out, to rebound, to go get the ball and secure the ball. I thought we did that well in the first half but not in the second half at all."

Nash agreed that the Longhorns got away from their game plan after halftime, in part because of Tennessee's running game.

"I think in the first half we were really flowing a lot better," Nash said. "We made them pay for being in their zone. In the second half we turned it over too much and that led to too many transition points for them. It was tiring for us to have to keep running back."

Texas had four scorers in double digits - Nash with 21 points, Ashleigh Fontenette with 20, Fussell with 18 and Anderson with 11. The Longhorns shot 40.9 percent overall (27-66), 28.1 percent from long range (9-32) and 77.8 percent from the line (14-18).

Tennessee had all five starters in double digits and outscored the Longhorns in the paint, 46-24. The Lady Vols got 17 points off the bench to Texas' one.

Tennessee shot 47.0 percent overall (39-83), 36.8 percent from long range (7-19) and 77.8 percent from the line (7-9).

It was a far cry from the last time Tennessee came to Austin when most of the current juniors were freshmen and the Lady Vols fell apart in the second half.

"I will never forget that game, especially my freshman year and guarding Brittainey Raven. She had about 30 on us," Stricklen said. "I still can't get that game out of my mind and coming back in this gym and to get a win, a big win, it just helps out a lot."

Those freshmen have improved considerably since then and added a precocious and talented one in Simmons.

"(Saturday) night I was nervous," Simmons said. "I was actually up for two hours. I couldn't go to sleep at all. That was my sense of nervousness and (later) I was able to sleep and this morning when I got up, I was like, ‘Thank God for letting me live another day.' After that I was so calm."

Bjorklund added, "We joke around with her but at the same time we're trying to keep her confident and encourage her as much as possible. … But as far as confidence she is one of the most confident players I've seen come into the program and just start off so strong."

The two UTs indicated this game would help sort out where their respective teams are right now - nearly all of Tennessee's team had not yet won in Austin while Texas wants to form a strong identity.

"We're still searching," Goestenkors said. "We know we're going to be up-tempo. That goes without saying. We're going to push the ball. We're going to push tempo. We share the ball really well. It's still a work in progress because we are so young, but I've seen glimpses of greatness and then we have some things that we definitely need to continue to work on.

"But we're going to be a team that's going to be up-tempo, we're going to push, we're going to attack, and we won't back down to anybody."

Goestenkors was impressed with the Lady Vols.

"I know they have high expectations," Goestenkors said. "They're very capable of going to the Final Four and winning a national championship when they all play together, because they are so versatile. They can throw so many things at you. I was very impressed."

Tennessee next turns it attention to the second Big 12 foe on the Texas road trip and a 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2) matchup with Baylor. The Lady Vols spent Sunday evening in Austin and were to head to Waco on Monday.

"We'll start working on that right away," Summitt said. "I normally don't look ahead. I know my staff has. (Brittney) Griner, she presents a lot of problems, so we're going to have to shoot the ball well from the outside because she's not typically going to really come out of the paint much. Our bigs have got to be creative. They've got to use their shot fakes, and just be really sharp."

Baylor won the last meeting, 77-62, in a Sweet 16 matchup last March in the NCAA tourney in Memphis to end Tennessee's season while the Bears went on to the Final Four.

"We've been looking forward to this game for awhile but at the same time the coaches really emphasize taking it one game at a time," Bjorklund said. "We were completely focused on Texas this whole last week and when that game ended my mind went to Baylor. We're very excited."


Coach Pat Summitt with players Angie Bjorklund, Meighan Simmons and Shekinna Stricklen.

Texas Coach Gail Goestenkors with Ashley Gayle and Kathleen Nash.

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