Meighan Simmons key for Lady Vols

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee point guard Meighan Simmons likes to play fast. Even coach Pat Summitt, who loves to push tempo, has had to warn "Speedy" to slow down.

"There will be times where I can't even slow myself down," Simmons said. "There will be times, I admit, where I do jack up shots. I'm rushing into it because I just want to get a feel of the ball and where the basket is. I know after a while, once I get into the flow of the game, I just let the game come to me."

She's been listening to her coach, though, and as a result her career is off to a quick start. The freshman whose nickname is "Speedy," has earned the starting point guard role, leads the Lady Vols in scoring at 16.2 points per game and has set a few Lady Volunteers rookie records.

She also makes Tennessee (17-2, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) a far more dangerous team.

"I think Meighan Simmons is the difference in the team," Mississippi coach Renee Ladner said after the Rebels lost to the Lady Vols 86-46 on Jan. 9. "I thought that was the missing piece last year. They really don't have any weaknesses at any position, per se."

The Lady Vols struggled with point guard play during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, with Summitt alternating between guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen, forward Alicia Manning and guard Briana Bass. Stricklen was often tabbed as the starting point guard, but the role seemed to make her uncomfortable on the floor.

Simmons was more of a shooting guard at Byron P. Steele II High School in Cibolo, Texas, where she broke a 25-year-old San Antonio Metro Area career scoring record with 3,406 points over four years.

She also wasn't among the top 10 prospects in the 2010 signing class and wasn't recruited until late in the process by Summitt, who didn't have a scholarship to offer her until former guard Cait McMahan ended her career in 2009 because of knee problems.

Still, Simmons slid into the role as she started piling up the points in the early part of Tennessee's season. She logged double-digit scoring in her first 13 career games, one shy of the school record 14 games that kicked off Chamique Holdsclaw's career and four more than her idol, Candace Parker.

Against Chattanooga -- her first start and second career game -- she scored the first points of the game on a 3-pointer after just nine seconds of play. In the following game against Virginia, she scored first on a fast-break layup just six seconds into the game.

That's when Summitt tried to slow the McDonald's All-American down a bit.

"She came in, and she'd never seen a shot she didn't like, so we had to work on shot selection. Then she had never really had to get down and hunker down and play defense. Now she's understanding the defense," the coach said.

Simmons admits she was drawn to Tennessee because of the high expectations of Summitt and the fans. Her father, Wayne Simmons, was in the military and taught her to train hard and be disciplined.

So she listened to Summitt and focused on sharing the ball more with players like Lady Vols' career 3-point leader Angie Bjorklund, Stricklen and 6-foot-6 post Kelley Cain and buckling down on defense.

"I'm a very disciplined person, very coachable," she said. "I like to listen and learn new things. That's kind of what helped me get this far."

Heading into Thursday night's game at South Carolina, Tennessee has blown out five of its last seven opponents by 20 points or more thanks to balanced scoring and a tough defensive attack. Simmons even got a double-double with 15 points and 11 asssists against Alabama to become the first Tennessee freshman and 10th Lady Vol to record a double-double off points and assists.

Her fearless shooting was clutch in the biggest game of the season. Simmons hit a 3-pointer to force overtime against Stanford on Dec. 19, a game Tennessee ended up winning 82-72 in the extra frame.

"As a freshman, probably in my career, she may be the absolute best athlete," Summitt said. "She's got the speed and the quickness, and she can elevate."