"I'm on the train," sophomore Meighan Simmons said Wednesday with a big smile. "I want to do whatever I can to help this team out to win.
"I tell Glory all the time, ‘I am here. I am right behind you. I understand.' We've got to work together as a team. We have to put our egos behind us and continue to move forward."
Simmons presented her boarding pass, as it were, with her defense in the last game against Auburn on Sunday.
That same afternoon, LSU, coached by former Lady Vol Nikki Caldwell, defeated Kentucky and while the Wildcats still hold first place in the SEC, the Lady Vols are back in the hunt.
"It's huge," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said of both the upcoming game and the SEC race. "Absolutely. Every game is huge. Vanderbilt is never easy. That is a tough game. Nothing is given.
"We've got a shot. Nikki did us a favor, and we got back in."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood was still in the Lady Vols' basketball office on Sunday when he got a text from Warlick about the result of the LSU-Kentucky game.
"We've got to do our job, but they did us a favor," Lockwood said. "It did (raise) spirits."
If the Lady Vols are going to contend for the SEC regular season championship or a share of the title, they will do so with their defense. Simmons, who in her second year is making the transition from scorer to complete basketball player, has shown she is capable of being a stout defender.
"I can," Simmons said. "This year I think I've been a lot more focused on defense more than offense. Some people are asking me why don't I shoot as much as I used to, but I feel that I need to bring a different aspect of the game.
"I feel like next year I will put both of them together and just develop from then on out."
Simmons has struggled with her jumper this season, but she was 6-9 against Auburn and often put the ball on the floor and got to the rim. She also hit the layups, something the coaching staff was likely thrilled to see considering the team-wide misses this season.
"I think the more higher percentage shots you get the easier it is on you," Simmons said. "I feel like it's something I need to continue to keep doing, especially coming up (to the end) of the SEC and the tournament.
"We need to be a lot more active and getting the ball inside whether it be post touches, whether it be guards penetrating, anything like that, that's something I need in my arsenal. It's always been in my arsenal but it's not something I've used as much as I should."
A primary attack from Tennessee's offense involves getting the ball inside by post entry passes or penetration. As far as defense, the coaches have an assortment of schemes that need one primary ingredient to work - high energy.
"It really is that simple," Simmons said. "We just have to bring it. We just have to bring it every day. We have so much energy in practice. We've just got to carry it over into the game."
The coaches weren't the only ones who had their day briefly brightened by the Kentucky-LSU score. The players also noticed.
"It did help us out a lot but at the same time we can't focus on that," Simmons said. "We have to focus on Tennessee and how we're going to get better in practice.
"Even outside of practice we've got to get in the gym and get extra shots. We know we want to get better, but we have to put in the work to be better.
"Vandy is our first look right now. We have to focus on Vandy. We have to focus on one game at a time."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5'6 freshman guard, No. 5 (8.5 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, 5.2 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (10.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 senior forward, No. 15 (4.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 ( 14.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg); and Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (13.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg).
Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb is expected to start: Kady Schrann, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 5 (7.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg), had two assists in the last matchup with the Lady Vols; Jasmine Lister, 5'4 sophomore guard, No. 11 (11.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg), nine points, five assists in last game; Christina Foggie, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (17.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg), tallied 27 points in last game; Tiffany Clarke, 6'0 junior forward, No. 34 (11.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg), eight points, seven rebounds in last game; and Stephanie Holzer, 6'4 redshirt sophomore center, No. 21 (11.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg), 14 points, three boards in last game.
SCOUTING REPORT: Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game. She expects the Lady Vols to be presented with the same challenges from the Commodores – multiple offensive options and defensive variety – as in the first matchup.
Tennessee had a slim lead at home in the Jan. 15 game at halftime, 39-36, and while the Lady Vols went on to an 87-64 win, Vanderbilt stayed close until midway in the second half when the Lady Vols went on a 21-4 run to put the game away.
Of particular concern to the coaches was the fact Christina Foggie tallied 27 points and five three-pointers – the rest of the Commodores were 0-11 from long range – and she will be a focal point of Thursday's game.
Offensively, "they are a well-oiled offensively drilled team," Warlick said. "You take something away and they have a counter. I haven't seen anything they're doing that's really different. They always run a lot of stuff.
"They run a lot of offensive concepts."
Defensively, Warlick expects to again see an assortment of looks ordered up by Coach Melanie Balcomb.
"They mix it up," Warlick said. "She plays man. She plays zone. She plays a matchup zone. Presses after makes. Tries to slow you down."
Both teams know each other so well that it's tough for either team to spring surprises through the grind of the SEC season.
"I know she doesn't anticipate us doing much different, and I know we don't anticipate her doing that much different," Warlick said.
TURN RIGHT: Those are the directions Lady Vol players subbing in to Thursday's game need to remember.
With the Tennessee bench on one baseline, the players heading to the scorer's table at center court need to go right.
Habits are hard to break – Nicky Anosike nearly always took a step left before reversing course – and players are used to going past the coaches on the way to the scorer's table. At Memorial Gymnasium, they head away from the Lady Vol coaches, whose seats are just to the side of the basket support.
It will be the first time freshman Ariel Massengale will play in the funky gym and it can be a challenge for any first-year player and especially the point guard.
With the benches on the baseline, the players often have their backs to their coaches, and they can't hear them 94 feet away.
Massengale will have a chance to get used to the configuration at shoot-around, and the coaches also trust her to call what she thinks is best if she can't hear them or needs to change the call.
"She is aware of what's going on and what we should be calling," Warlick said. "I think she will be able to handle that. I think she understands our system and what we're doing."
AND THE STAFF SAID AMEN: Glory Johnson called out the team as a whole, including herself, after the loss last week to South Carolina, and reaffirmed her conviction that players needed to get on board the Tennessee train.
"I agree with her," Dean Lockwood said.
The coaches can pound the message over and over, but nothing carries the weight of a player's words.
"Yes!" Lockwood said. "And Glory Johnson has as much credibility as any player on this team, if not more so. With her effort level and her production level, you can't fault that.
"As far as the effort level that she puts forth there is not anybody that has a problem with Glory. Every single day since August when we first got together to February, that kid from an effort and production standpoint has been at the top of the charts consistently."
Johnson included herself in the criticism of missed layups and blown defensive assignments but noted that some players weren't bothered by it. When the team as a whole found that unacceptable, Johnson said it would get better.
"I have no problem with her speaking out," Lockwood said. "I appreciate it. I respect the heck out of her. I'm glad she did. Our team needs that. Glory's spirit is so good. I have never heard her run anybody down. I have heard her challenge people."
Johnson, who has been a regular for extra gym work, said every player needed to do so.
"She's calling the team to accountability and I think that's tremendous," Lockwood said.
KINNA CONVO: Pat Summitt mentioned after Sunday's game that she had spoken last Friday with Shekinna Stricklen, who asked for a meeting with the head coach.
The conversation was effective because Stricklen played with high energy on both ends of the floor in the next game.
"We really needed to talk," Stricklen said. "I have been frustrated with how I've been playing. Just talked to her and her encouraging me, it just made me feel really good."
Of the senior class as a whole, Stricklen, who has acknowledged how laidback she can be, is one player who needs Summitt to dial her up at times.
"It was very positive and encouraging," Stricklen said. "It just feels good when I hear her voice. It really does get to me. Just listening to what she was telling me was great."
That was a big step for Stricklen to seek out Summitt, rather than the other way around, as the laconic senior is likely to keep to herself.
"It really made me feel good," Stricklen said.
SEC PLAY: Eight other SEC teams are in action Thursday in the following matchups: Mississippi State at LSU; Alabama at Ole Miss; South Carolina at Arkansas; and Auburn at Florida. Georgia and Kentucky are idle.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with Vanderbilt, 59-7. The Lady Vols are 23-5 in Nashville and have won the past two games at Memorial Gymnasium. The Commodores last won on their home floor against the Lady Vols in 2009. … Tennessee is 11-3 in games played on February 9. The last win on this date came against Florida, 79-40, in 2003. The first win on February 9 was against Cumberland (Ky.), 28-14, in 1923. The three losses on this date were to Carson-Newman, 36-16, in 1925; Louisiana Tech, 72-60, in 1987; and LSU, 72-69, in 2006.
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