Simmons seeks complete game

Meighan Simmons is looking for good meal in Oklahoma City, and she is not talking about food. Go inside with InsideTennessee as the Lady Vols prepare for the Sweet 16.

The Lady Vols arrived in Oklahoma City on Friday and will meet with the media and practice Saturday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Tennessee takes on Oklahoma in a Sweet 16 matchup Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern with Baylor and Louisville squaring off in the second game.

If the Lady Vols are going to safely get to the Elite Eight, the effort must start on the defensive end. It has been a season-long message - and a situation still in progress - from assistant coach Kyra Elzy.

"She has always told us if we play hard on the defensive end, the offensive end will come a lot easier," Meighan Simmons said. "The bread and butter of our team is defense and rebounding.

"So when we focus on our bread and butter, the dinner plate is so much better, and it tastes good."

Simmons feasted in the second round win over Creighton, as she used her quickness on defense to disrupt the Bluejays and generate points for herself and teammates.

She took just six shots, and tallied 10 points, but they were a good six shots. Simmons, Ariel Massengale and Taber Spani all went 2-3 from the arc, while Kamiko Williams put her short game on display and got to the paint to lead the team with 15 points.

"We have so many great players," Simmons said. "Anybody can show up at any point in time and Miko just happened to be the player of the game. She had an amazing game.

"If I am not shooting well or if I only take a few shots, there are other people who can step up. Do what is best for the team. I have matured. I really have. I have to be patient with my shots.

"I have to remind myself this is what you are capable of doing, like driving to the basket and shooting threes and dishing. I can do all of that. Every person on this team is great and at any point in time anybody can show up."

Simmons is a junior now, and her game has evolved from a high-volume shooter as a freshman to an inconsistent sophomore season to a go-to player in her third year.

"I really have learned a lot about myself," Simmons said. "I have become the player I dreamed of becoming – focus on the defensive end, getting easier baskets early on in the game, getting steals and letting the offense come to me. I have become more patient.

"My freshman year there were so many shots that I had taken and I watched film from the past couple of years I am like, ‘Oh, my God what was I doing?' My shots have become more within the offense. I can create a shot and I can get my teammates open."

That doesn't mean that Simmons doesn't still occasionally stray off script. If need be, Elzy will be in her ear.

"We started talking to her about that when the season started, and we are going to continue to stay on Meighan," Elzy said. "She is one of the best guards in the country and challenging her day in and day out to play on both end of the floor will just make her that much better.

"Just holding her accountable and being consistent with her, just because you're scoring doesn't mean you're going to get to stay on the floor if you're not getting it done on the defensive end. I think she stepped up to the challenge."

Elzy, a lockdown defender as a Lady Vol, brought that mentality to Tennessee from Kentucky, where she served as an assistant coach before joining Holly Warlick's staff.

She saw the overall ability of Simmons and wanted the junior to grow her game, especially on defense.

"The effort is there," Elzy said. "Now, we have to get her in position consistently and also for her to continue to play defense even if her shot is not going in. That was a challenge for her earlier and I think she has done better with that."

Elzy's efforts weren't limited to the junior. She asked all the guards to become better defenders and especially commit to ball pressure. The Lady Vols had played a lot of zone defense over the past three years, and Elzy wanted to restore the attack mode.

"It's been a team effort, just trying to get our kids to buy in and really equate defense and winning," Elzy said. "If you want to win big down the stretch, you are going to have to defend. I think they want to win. So change it to defense matters.

"We are still working on changing it. We have not arrived yet. But I think they are buying in and I think the more success they see, the harder they will play."

The players, especially the guards, took notice of Elzy immediately.

"She has done a lot," Massengale said. "Last year at times there wouldn't be a lot of emphasis on our defense because we were so talented on the offensive end.

"She is very demanding. We do drills against practice guys and if we are not in help we lose a point, if we miss a box-out, we don't get a point, if we don't deny, they take points away.

"And we are like, ‘How are we supposed to win the game if you are taking all these points away from us?' Every little thing has got to be perfect for her. But it definitely helps."

Senior Kamiko Williams also has benefited from the presence of Elzy, as she got the senior to ratchet up her defense.

"Kyra put her foot down," Williams said. "She established herself. She basically told us we're not going to win anything if we don't play defense. That is something that we know but we have been so offensive-minded, so offense has always carried us through.

"She came in day one and told us we needed to get this right now. It has been the key to us winning these games. She has stressed that since day one. She still is. She pulled us to the side the other day and told us how we need to close out watching film.

"She is just a strong woman and she leads really well. Everybody follows her and respects her."


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