Meighan Simmons comes full circle

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- All those shots hoisted, all those miles run trying to beat a defense down the court or free herself from a thicket of screens, and Meighan Simmons winds up back at the starting line.

This is not to say it was a wasted trip for the Tennessee senior whose career in so many ways embodies the challenges of an era of change for the Lady Vols.

On Sunday, Simmons will take the court in this arena near the banks of the Ohio River and attempt to prolong her college career in a regional semifinal between No. 1 seed Tennessee and No. 4 seed Maryland. The math is brutally simple at this time of year. Only with a win Sunday and another in Tuesday's regional final can she leave Louisville and play more games.

That's a far cry from four years ago, when she left here with her whole career in front of her.

With 15:46 remaining in the first half of the first-ever game at the KFC Yum! Center on Nov. 12, 2010, Simmons checked in for the first time in a regular-season college game. Her first recorded statistical contribution was a turnover about a minute later, but that was about the only thing she did wrong that day. While Louisville's Shoni Schimmel struggled with missed shots and eight turnovers in her college debut, Simmons led all players with 22 points in a 63-50 Tennessee win.

Pat Summitt, it seemed, had found another star.

"I will never forget Pat just telling me to be confident, be confident in what I could bring to the table," Simmons recalled. "I will never forget just playing with such charisma and such poise and being confident. Everything was just flowing. I didn't want to let Pat down, I didn't want to let my team down. I just wanted to win."

The best way for her to help make that happen was to score as many points as possible. It always has been that way for the guard with the quick first step and even quicker release.

Four years later, her team has the top seed, but she receives third billing among the senior stars on hand.

This is Schimmel's house, the arena where she has played and entertained for four seasons. It's an appropriately big stage for a player who so often seems to play up to big moments, whether taking the ball at Brittney Griner in the Sweet 16 a season ago or scoring 33 points as a freshman to upset second-seeded Xavier.

More immediately, Simmons is cast opposite Maryland's Alyssa Thomas. Like Simmons, Thomas is seeking her first Final Four appearance, but is widely recognized as among a handful of the best players the college game has to offer, a two-time WBCA All-American and no less deserving of that accolade for a third time this season.

Whatever happens here, Schimmel and Thomas long ago shaped the legacies they will leave. It's more complicated with Simmons.

It is not as if she lacks lines on the résumé. She was the media's pick as SEC Player of the Year this season and split the same honor from the coaches a season ago. She is one of five players in Tennessee history to score 2,000 points, no small feat when the other four names are Chamique Holdsclaw, Bridgette Gordon, Candace Parker and Tamika Catchings. But she is also without the Final Four appearance that once seemed a birthright for the Lady Vols, and she hasn't helped her own cause. In 14 career NCAA tournament games, she is averaging 12.9 points per game on 36 percent shooting.

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