Commentary

Underclassmen lead Tennessee

Lady Vols win for first time this season after trailing at halftime

Originally Published: March 24, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Sophomore Meighan Simmons is growing up game-to-game for Tennessee, yet she still has that little-kid face. She hits a big shot and looks as gleeful as a 6-year-old who just punked a bunch of older kids in a game of marbles … well, if children still played marbles, that is.

Actually, some probably still do. You could see Simmons among them, with that grin that could place her comfortably among the Little Rascals. Saturday, she and freshman backcourt mate Ariel Massengale had to play beyond their years as No. 2 seed Tennessee held off pesky, energetic No. 11 seed Kansas 84-73 in the Des Moines Regional semifinals.

It was the first time this season that the Lady Vols were able to overcome a halftime deficit to win; they were 0-6 previously when in that situation. Much of the thanks Saturday went to Simmons, who had a team-high 22 points, and Massengale, who had 12 -- her first double-digit scoring output since Feb. 5 versus Auburn -- and five assists.

[+] EnlargeAriel Massengale
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallAriel Massengale hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the second half to tie the score and energize the Lady Vols.

Both came off the bench, as Tennessee has stuck with its all-senior starting lineup of the past month. Will that change Monday night (ESPN/ESPN3, 7 ET) when the Lady Vols face top-seeded Baylor for a spot in the Final Four?

Perhaps. Coach Pat Summitt indicated after the game that the Tennessee staff would have to consider whether one or both of the youngsters might move into the starting five. Whether they do, they'll play a ton; Saturday, Massengale was on the floor for 35 minutes and Simmons 32. They provided the spark the Lady Vols needed. Plus, they respect their elders.

Simmons and Massengale talk often about how Tennessee's seniors -- from the smallest, 5-foot-2 Briana Bass, to the biggest, 6-4 Vicki Baugh -- have advised them and impacted their development.

Now, Simmons and Massengale hope they will be able to help the seniors reach their first Final Four as a class, although Baugh, a redshirt senior, did play in the 2008 Final Four that Tennessee won.

Baugh suffered a torn ACL in the championship game that year, subsequently hurt her knee again in 2009, and has persevered as the senior spokeswoman for this Tennessee squad. She appreciates what Simmons and Massengale are doing.

"Meighan Simmons brings energy and passion on every play -- that's the beauty of her," Baugh said. "She's so quick, and when she steps up on defense like she did today, she's unstoppable.

"I give her all credit about her defense. I know she's a scorer, but her defense today was the best that I've seen, and I'm extremely proud of her. I think both she and Ariel did great today. They were playing like seniors, and they were confident enough to take their shots in the second half. Our guards have to take those shots. They were communicating, and they were leaders on the floor today. They helped me out a lot. It helped us get to where we are."

Ariel Massengale talks about growing as a point guard, playing alongside Meighan Simmons, and learning from her senior teammates.

Massengale matures

The Jayhawks got farther this season than anyone expected them to, rallying from a devastating loss to the Big 12's last-place team, Missouri, on Feb. 18, all the way to the NCAA Sweet 16.

Along the way, KU saw great progress from its freshmen under the leadership of redshirt junior Angel Goodrich. One of those rookies, Chelsea Gardner, had 14 points and 10 rebounds against Tennessee, and should be one of the key building blocks for KU next season. The Jayhawks hope to have back post player Carolyn Davis, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12, and only lose forward Aishah Sutherland, who finished her KU career with 19 points and eight rebounds.

Goodrich, one of the breakout stars of this NCAA tournament, led KU with 23 points and six assists.

"She put her team on her back the last few games," Massengale said of Goodrich. "And I know she worked on her game; I saw on TV about how this past summer she worked on her 3-ball. She has the full package -- she can defend, shoot the 3, and get to the basket. She's a point guard that any coach would want on their team."

[+] EnlargeVicki Baugh
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallTennessee has been starting five seniors, including Vicki Baugh, for a month. But the lineup might see some change Monday against Baylor.

Gracious words from a freshman, but it shows the maturity of Massengale, who is also the kind of point guard a coach wants.

"Tennessee's backcourt has all different kinds of ways to score," KU coach Bonnie Henrickson said. "You see their speed in transition; they're very, very good."

Kansas, which was in its first NCAA tournament since 2000, knocked off No. 6 seed Nebraska and 3-seed Delaware to get here, and looked primed to upset Tennessee as well for the first 20 minutes. The Jayhawks led by as much as 14 points a little more than midway through the first half, but Tennessee cut it to five at the break.

Then early in the second half, the Lady Vols tied the score on consecutive 3-pointers by Massengale. After that, Tennessee gradually grabbed control of the game.

"They gave us a lot of energy," Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said of the back-to-back treys by Massengale. "Once we got the lead, we pounded it inside a little bit more."

Glory Johnson had 18 points and seven rebounds for Tennessee, and Shekinna Stricklen 16 and 9. Tennessee had just eight turnovers, and Kansas nine. Overall, it was a well-played game, although the Lady Vols know they will have to raise the level higher for Baylor.

Simmons wants to be a big part of that, saying she was especially inspired by Summitt on Saturday.

"She was talking to me a lot today, telling me, 'You're OK, don't worry. Keep shooting,'" Simmons said. "Just to see her in that form, it brings a lot of encouragement to me. I want to play every game like it's my last game. When you love something, you have to show you love it. Making sure I'm getting everyone involved, that brings a whole bunch of joy to me.

"When we start off sluggish like we did in the first half, I get frustrated. Because I feel there's so much more that we can get out of ourselves. I say to myself, 'Meighan, you need to get out there and bring some energy, lift the team up.'"

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.