KNOXVILLE — There's something about Auburn that brings out the best in Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons.
Simmons had 24 points, seven rebounds, five steals and four assists Thursday and the 11th-ranked Lady Vols trounced Auburn 83-61 to remain in sole possession of first place in the Southeastern Conference.
When these teams squared off Jan. 17, Auburn owned a 12-point lead in the second half before Tennessee rallied for a 75-66 triumph. Simmons scored 29 points that night, including 18 in the second half.
The rematch wasn't nearly as competitive. Rather than devastating Auburn (14-12, 3-10) in the second half as she had last month, Simmons knocked the Tigers out of the game early.
"I feel like I started off a lot more energetic than what I did the last time we played them," Simmons said. "I was a lot more hungry this game."
Simmons said she watched the film of the first UT-Auburn game and noticed plenty of mistakes she had made. Most of those errors were defensive lapses. The 5-foot-9 junior wasted no time making amends.
Simmons scored 11 points in the first 8 minutes Thursday and made three 3-pointers in a 67-second span early in the game as Tennessee (21-5, 12-1) raced to a 33-7 advantage.
She might have made an even bigger impression on defense. Simmons' five steals represented a career high, and she helped harass Auburn into 20 turnovers. Auburn turned the ball over five times in the first 3 ½ minutes of the game.
"We've been trying to harp on her to not be a one-dimensional player," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "Today she was outstanding."
The entire Tennessee team was outstanding during that torrid start.
The Lady Vols went 6-of-7 from 3-point range in the first seven minutes of the game. Six of their first eight baskets were from beyond the arc. Rather than having to rally from a double-digit deficit in the second half against Auburn this time, Tennessee put the game out of reach midway through the first half.
"We were not prepared to play Auburn (the first time)," Warlick said. "Mentally, we were just not prepared. I think tonight we focused on them. We focused on preparing and focused on not overlooking anyone because we are not good enough to overlook a team."
Simmons and Taber Spani led Tennessee's 3-point attack. Spani scored 16 points Thursday while shooting 4-of-5 from 3-point range. They were part of Tennessee's balanced attack that featured five players scoring in double figures and two players recording double-doubles.
Ariel Massengale had 10 points and 10 assists for her first career double-double. Cierra Burdick had 15 points and a career-high 13 rebounds in her best performance since coming back Jan. 31 from a broken right hand that knocked her out for eight games. Bashaara Graves nearly gave Tennessee a third double-double, finishing with 14 points and nine rebounds.
"I'd been pretty down on myself lately and I'd lost some confidence being hurt," Burdick said. "(I'm) just finally getting my confidence back. That can do a world of difference. It can make you feel stronger physically, mentally and emotionally. Just having that confidence really helped me."
Tyrese Tanner scored 20 points, Blanche Alverson added 15 and Chadarryl Clay had 10 for Auburn, which lost for the ninth time in its last 10 games. The Tigers had snapped an eight-game losing streak Sunday with a 70-53 victory over Alabama.
Auburn has lost 15 straight times to the Lady Vols at Thompson-Boling Arena and hasn't won here since Jan. 9, 1988.
The Tigers didn't come close Thursday to changing their history of frustration in Knoxville. Tennessee's 3-point onslaught overwhelmed an Auburn team that had a tough time even getting a shot off in the early stages of the game.
Auburn was playing its third straight game without injured starting point guard Najat Ouardad. The Tigers struggled without her and committed 14 first-half turnovers.
"Whenever there's a change, there's a disruption that happens," Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. "We'll get our starters back for Sunday."
The injury to the 5-1 Ouardad did give Auburn a starting lineup in which all five players were at least 6-1, but Tennessee still outrebounded the Tigers 44-30.
The only bad news for Tennessee came late in the first half when reserve forward Jasmine Jones got hit in the nose during a scrum near the basket. Jones didn't return to the game, though Warlick said it was just a precautionary measure.
Tennessee wasn't quite as sharp after that remarkable start. The Lady Vols finished 9-for-20 from 3-point range and committed 19 turnovers.
But their outstanding work in building that 33-7 lead more than made up for any sloppy moments they had after the game was already decided.
"I've come in here so many times and have preached defense and rebounding," Warlick said. "I thought today we made a statement on the defensive end. (It was) everyone. And I think it started with Meighan."comments powered by Disqus