With Auburn's star point guard missing Thursday night's game at Thompson-Boling Arena due to a sprained ankle, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick could empathize. She just couldn't sympathize.
Exploiting the absence of SEC assists leader Najat Ouardad, Warlick's Lady Vols pressured the ball from the opening tip, causing a flurry of early turnovers that paved the way for an 83-61 Tennessee waltz.
“Today I thought we made a statement on the defensive end,” Warlick said.
Apparently, that statement was “No mercy.”
Cashing in on seven Tiger turnovers in the opening eight minutes, the Lady Vols hit nine of their first 12 field-goal tries en route to a 26-5 lead. The only suspense thereafter was whether Tennessee would take its foot off the gas and let the Tigers make the final score respectable. That didn't happen.
Meighan Simmons nailed three 3-pointers and a 17-footer during Thursday night's opening salvo. With 11 points and a full 12 minutes left in the first half, she was on pace to score 55 points and the Lady Vols were on track to beat the Tigers, 130-25.
“I started off a lot more energetic than I did the last time we played them (Jan. 17 at Auburn),” Simmons said. “I was a lot more hungry this game.”
After praising her team's defense, Warlick noted: “I think it started with Meighan. She guarded the ball. We've been trying to harp on her to not be a one-dimensional player, and today she was outstanding.”
The opposing coach thought so, too.
“Meighan Simmons is a great player,” Auburn's Terri Williams-Flournoy said. “When Meighan Simmons plays defense, she becomes an even better player. I thought she did a really good job defending the point guard.”
Apparently so. Unsettled by Simmons' pressure, Auburn's fill-in at point guard, Hasina Muhammad, compiled a first-half stat line that showed 1-of-7 shooting and 4 turnovers.
“I thought Tennessee came out and played extremely well in the first half,” Williams-Flournoy said. “We didn't look very much under control. I think we panicked a little bit.”
Seven turnovers in eight minutes suggests she was right.
Tennessee eventually pushed the lead to 26 points (33-7) before cooling off a bit. Auburn made a mild rally but still went to the break with 14 turnovers and a 44-21 deficit.
Simmons ensured that the Lady Vols didn't go flat after intermission, deflecting passes and hitting a couple of quick bank shots in transition to open the second half.
“When my defense is going, the offense comes, and it comes naturally,” she said. “I'll continue to work hard on the defensive end.”
When she fed Cierra Burdick for a layup that gave Tennessee a 55-32 lead five minutes into the second half, several hundred fans began heading for the exits. They didn't miss much.
Eleventh-ranked Tennessee pushed the lead to 28 points (64-36) on a Taber Spani run-out, bumped it to 29 points (76-47) on a Spani 3-pointer, to 30 points (78-48) on a Bashaara Graves 15-footer and to 31 points (81-50) on a Simmons 3-pointer with 3:36 remaining.
Warlick's merciful side showed through at this point. She emptied her bench, enabling Auburn to close the game on an 11-2 run that produced the final score.
Tennessee shot 48.4 percent (31 of 64) from the field, 45.0 percent (9 of 20) from 3-point range and 92.3 percent (12 of 13) from the foul line. The Lady Vols also posted a season-high 24 assists. Still, the home team won this game on the defensive end of the floor. Auburn shot just 34.6 percent from the field in the first half and 40.0 percent for the game. Even with Warlick showing some compassion in the second half, the Tigers finished with almost twice as many turnovers (20) as assists (12).
“We've been focusing a lot on the defensive end the past few practices,” Simmons said. “I feel like I've been working so hard to try to make defense a priority. I feel like my defense really did dictate my offense. I got early points off the steals.”
Warlick wrote one word – “discipline” – on the locker room chalk board prior to the game. Apparently, her players got the message.
“The intensity level was different,” Spani said. “We really played disciplined, while being really intense.”
Simmons, who burned Auburn for 29 points in a 75-66 Tennessee win last month on The Plains, scored 24 in Thursday's rematch. She also pulled down 7 rebounds, dished out 4 assists and made 5 steals.
Spani drained 4 of 5 shots from 3 en route to 16 points. Burdick added a double-double – 15 points and 13 rebounds – later noting that the performance provided a “sigh of relief” and perhaps “a stepping stone for me.”
Graves finished with 14 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists. Ariel Massengale posted a double-double, contributing 10 points and 10 assists, as all five starters scored in double figures.
“When it's hard to pick a player of the game, you understand it's been a great team effort,” Warlick noted after watching her team improve to 21-5 overall and 12-1 in SEC play.
Tyrese Tanner scored 20 points and Blanche Alverson 15 for Auburn, which slips to 14-12 and 3-10.
Tennessee freshman Jasmine Jones was held out of the second half after taking a shot to the nose just shy of intermission. Warlick called the move a “precaution,” adding: “I think she's fine but I'm sure they'll evaluate her tomorrow, and the doctors will look at her, as well.”