Meighan Simmons leads Lady Vols

Meighan Simmons found her shooting touch in the Bahamas – just in time for the Lady Vols – and Tennessee stayed undefeated on the season. Go inside for analysis.

Tennessee (6-0) overcame a slow start, foul trouble and torrid shooting by one opponent with an offensive explosion from Meighan Simmons to secure the 76-67 win over Virginia (3-3) in Freeport at the Junkanoo Jam.

The win landed Tennessee in the championship Friday evening at 8 p.m. Eastern against SMU, which defeated Kansas State. The Lady Vol Radio Network will broadcast the title game.

Simmons tallied 32 points and tied a career-high with eight three-pointers after struggling on offense to start the season.

"I've always been waiting for this moment and it's Thanksgiving Day and what a great day to show my gift that God has given me," Simmons said. "It's a great day to be playing basketball."

Simmons' enthusiasm can be understood. Tennessee has been waiting for the reigning SEC Player of the Year to break out, and she did so in the Bahamas.

"I kept running things to her and she was in the corner and they weren't covering her, so I told them to give it to Meighan," coach Holly Warlick said. "She was on fire and in the zone and when she is, you just have to get her the basketball.

"I didn't think that she forced the basketball. Probably 99 percent of the shots were good shots for her and I'm OK with that. We have to do a better job shooting free throws, but I'm very proud of our team, we came from behind and took care of some stuff."

Tennessee shot 52.8 percent (28-53) overall with 21 assists on those 28 made baskets thanks to a career-high 13 helpers by Ariel Massengale, who continues her outstanding play. Massengale also added 10 points on 4-8 shooting. Cierra Burdick also reached double figures with 10 points on 4-8 shooting and grabbed six boards.

Guard play was critical Thursday because of foul trouble with the post players – Burdick moved inside to help – with 14 whistles against the Lady Vols and six for the Cavaliers before halftime. Warlick got a technical foul 2.9 seconds before halftime after a Virginia player, caught in a corner trap, lofted the ball at the rim and got a foul call and three free throws.

Tennessee trailed 39-35 at the break, but Warlick didn't have to say much, as she had in the past.

"I was proud of our players for having my back," Warlick said. "I told them that they had to come back out and play. I didn't have to do much; they were all pretty fired up at halftime."

Ataira Franklin torched Tennessee in the first half with 17 points and finished with 25.

"We decided to face guard her," Warlick said. "When you do that, we take someone totally out and they (that Lady Vol defender) can't help or anything. Their only job is to make sure that kid doesn't touch the ball.

"I thought Cierra was phenomenal on what she needed to do and she did the same thing against (Kaela) Davis (of Georgia Tech) in the second half, too.

"It's part my fault, too, that it takes a half to decide that we better start face guarding someone. But I thought she did a great job and then Andraya (Carter) came in and did a great job on her, too. We needed a strong team effort today."

Massengale put the blame on the players for fouling and not getting in the proper defensive position.

"We let them do whatever they wanted to," Massengale said. "We know what we're supposed to do. We know what spots we're supposed to be in. We've just got to make sure that we're doing it consistently."

Warlick has stayed, so far, with her veteran lineup to start games of one senior, three juniors and a sophomore. But she has said she would revise it, if needed, and the slow starts are a concern. The question is who comes out?

Bashaara Graves and Isabelle Harrison are experienced and efficient posts – when they can stay on the court and not get whistled for fouls – and freshman Mercedes Russell has been effective off the bench and is still adjusting to the physicality and speed of college basketball.

Massengale is playing the best basketball of her college career. Simmons can take over games, like she did Thursday, and can fill up the box score. Burdick will get on the boards and she has twice now shut down a hot player in the second half.

Andraya Carter could be a candidate to start – the three-guard lineup has been effective and can set the tone on defense – but she is also, along with Jasmine Jones, an athletic force to come off the bench.

So, Warlick could opt to leave the lineup intact, but if the slow starts continue – Texas and Stanford loom in December – a change could be necessary.

The team's overall mind-set seems to be one that could handle lineup changes – and Warlick is finding minutes for players, whether they start or come off the bench.

"I probably have the best teammates on this earth right now," Simmons said. "Our depth is something that we're really going to need later on this season when we get into tough games.

"If everyone keeps working on their own things individually, then we'll bring all of that cohesively together."

While Tennessee shot well overall, the Lady Vols struggled from the line at 56.3 percent (9-16). Tennessee shot just two free throws in the first half, but Warlick didn't blame the officials. Tennessee launched 16 three balls before halftime, not the kind of offense that gets a player to the line.

"We weren't attacking," Warlick said.

Tennessee regrouped at halftime – Massengale instructed the five players on the court and the five on the bench to have Warlick's back – and secured the win to stay perfect.

"For the most part we were playing hard, we just weren't playing smart," Warlick said of the first half. "I was proud of them for stepping up and taking care of business."

Holly Warlick video via utsportstv

Ariel Massengale video via utsportstv

Meighan Simmons video via utsportstv

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