"I woke up this morning in a different mindset," Simmons said Sunday after scoring a career-high 33 points in the 16th-ranked Lady Vols' 102-57 victory over No. 22 North Carolina. "I wanted to go out and play my hardest because I knew what was coming up."
What was coming up was a visit from an unbeaten team to begin the toughest stretch of Tennessee's schedule. Even though Tennessee (6-1) was the higher-ranked team, Simmons believed many people didn't expect the Lady Vols to win.
She wasted no time proving those skeptics wrong.
Simmons reached the 1,000-point mark for her career as the Lady Vols earned their sixth straight victory and handed North Carolina its first loss of the season. The 5-foot-9 junior became the first Lady Vol to score at least 30 points in a game since Candace Parker had 34 points in a 74-64 victory over Notre Dame in the 2008 NCAA tournament.
"There was an expectation that North Carolina was going to beat us," Simmons said. "I kind of took that to heart and did what I could for the team, did what I could to help my teammates."
North Carolina (7-1) headed into the day allowing only 54.3 points per game hadn't given up more than 64 points in any of its seven wins, but the Tar Heels couldn't stop Tennessee. This game marked the first time Tennessee had reached the 100-point mark against a ranked opponent since a 102-68 rout of No. 15 DePaul on Jan. 2, 2008.
Tennessee outplayed the Tar Heels in every phase of the game.
North Carolina owned a height advantage over Tennessee with 6-6 center Waltiea Rolle and was averaging a plus-9 rebound margin for the season, but the Lady Vols outrebounded the Heels 54-40. The Heels committed 30 turnovers. Tennessee shot 37-of-77 from the floor and 6-of-14 from 3-point range, while North Carolina was 21-of-61 overall and 1-of-11 from beyond the arc.
"We'll learn from this one and move on," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said.
Simmons was the biggest difference maker.
She was a sizzling 9-of-11 in the first half and thrived on the fast pace North Carolina prefers. The biggest indication that this was simply her day came with 4:06 left in the half when her jumper hit just about every side of the rim before falling through.
"She's I think the quickest player with the basketball that I've seen in my career," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "I've never seen anybody as fast with the basketball."
Simmons had plenty of help.
Isabelle Harrison scored a career-high 18 points to go along with 11 rebounds. The 6-3 sophomore center had a bruise under her right eye after the game as a souvenir of her battles under the basket with the bigger Tar Heels.
"(I was) playing defense against a big girl and I caught an elbow in the eye," Harrison said. "But if that's what it takes, I'll take it."
Cierra Burdick had 15 points and 10 rebounds, Bashaara Graves scored 11 points and Taber Spani added 10 points for the Lady Vols, who have won 15 of their last 16 home games against ranked opponents. Xylina McDaniel had 19 points and 13 rebounds for North Carolina. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, the Tar Heels' leading scorer, played just 11 minutes and sustained a head injury in the first half.
This game represented a major contrast from Tennessee's 88-81 overtime victory over Middle Tennessee four days earlier. The Lady Vols trailed for the first 35 minutes against Middle Tennessee. They never trailed North Carolina.
"I think our intensity was a lot better," Spani said. "In the future, we want to get to a point where we stay consistent for every game. Middle Tennessee was a mini-wake-up call, and I think our intensity and energy wasn't as consistent as we wanted it to be."
Tennessee pulled ahead for good in the opening minutes with an 8-0 run that broke a 2-2 tie. The Lady Vols owned a 49-28 halftime advantage and led by double digits for the last 33:57 of the game. The 102-57 final score represented Tennessee's largest margin of victory over a ranked foe since a 111-62 triumph over No. 21 Illinois on Nov. 25, 2000.
"I don't think it was as bad as the score indicated," Hatchell said. "If we'd walked it up the floor, we probably could have kept it to 15-20 points maybe. But that's not going to help us down the road."
After playing its best game of the season, Tennessee now has two weeks off before returning to action to face the toughest portion of its schedule. The Lady Vols play at No. 13 Texas on Dec. 16 and visit No. 3 Baylor on Dec. 18 before hosting top-ranked Stanford on Dec. 22.
The Lady Vols can only hope that two-week break doesn't cool off Simmons.
"Whatever she ate, drank, did last night, she's got to do that again every game," Warlick said with a laugh. "I'm going to make sure of it."