Nov. 12, 2010
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Nobody else will overlook Meighan Simmons, not after the way the Tennessee freshman helped the Lady Vols pull out their season opener.
Simmons scored 22 points before a record crowd as No. 4 Tennessee beat Louisville 63-50 on Friday night in the first regular-season game at the new KFC Yum! Center.
"It was devastating," Louisville forward Monique Reid said of Simmons. "She wasn't really on the scouting report. We knew she was able. If you go to Tennessee, we know you're a baller. We didn't really expect it. We wanted somebody else to score other than the main ... like [Angie] Bjorklund, Glory [Johnson] like that. Big ups to her. She's a hooper."
Simmons didn't expect to play as much as she did with 31 minutes coming off the bench. She was 9-of-20 from the floor with eight rebounds.
"I think it was the fact of god using his gift and showing it to the world and letting people know I gave this girl a gift and why not use it at this point in time for my first away game with 22,000 people," Simmons said. "That's just crazy to me, just crazy."
Actually, the game set a Big East women's attendance mark of 22,124. That topped the 19,123 that then-No. 1 Connecticut drew in a visit to Freedom Hall on Jan. 12, 2008. Freedom Hall was a dusty old barn with so much hoops history. People may have been curious to check out the gleaming building with the dazzling scoreboard and all the modern comforts down to a bourbon bar overlooking the Ohio River. Louisville also added a new piece of history by retiring the No. 35 jersey worn by Angel McCoughtry before tipoff.
"What a great place," Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt said of an arena she compared to Tennessee's home, Thompson-Boling Arena.
Louisville coach Jeff Walz grabbed a microphone at the end and thanked the fans who wore mostly red and not Tennessee orange.
The fans gave him a standing ovation and fans talked of a quick return to the Final Four. He joked later he thought they were standing up to head for the exits.
"They were fantastic. The place got loud," Walz said. Shekinna Stricklen scored 14 points for Tennessee, which improved to 34-3 in season openers in Summitt's 37 seasons.
Reid had 19 points for Louisville in a loss that snapped a five-game winning streak in openers for the Cardinals.
It was a sloppy, physical game as both teams struggled to hold onto the ball or find the basket. Louisville led 8-2 before Tennessee took the lead for good at 11-10 on a layup by Johnson.
This opener pitted experience versus youth.
Tennessee is junior-laden with nearly every player back from a team that went 32-3 last season. The Lady Vols won the championship in 2008 but have made earlier-than-expected exits from the last two NCAA tournaments. Louisville's roster is stocked with the highest recruited group of freshmen in school history. That includes Shoni Schimmel, the highest-ranked player ever to sign with the Cardinals.
But it was tough to tell who had more freshmen as both teams traded turnovers and bad shots throughout.
The Lady Vols wound up with 29 turnovers. Louisville, with the excuse of so many freshmen, had 22.
Early on, it looked as if the Lady Vols didn't realize this game counted. They missed their first seven shots, including a jumper from Stricklen that never came near the rim as it flew over, and they couldn't control the ball, either.
Summitt tried to take advantage of having her two top post players healthy by playing 6-foot-6 Kelley Cain and 6-4 Vicki Baugh early. It didn't help as both picked up two quick fouls. Tennessee did wind up controlling the boards 53-29.
Meanwhile, Schimmel had seven of the Cards' 15 turnovers in the first half despite playing only nine minutes. Walz kept playing her too, and she had just one more turnover to go with all of her nine points in the second half.
Simmons got going in her own debut hit a jumper to cap a 10-0 spurt for a 15-10 lead midway through the first half. She wound up playing 31 minutes.
"I was impressed because Pat let her play," Walz said.
Louisville didn't go away, not with that crowd ramping up the energy every time the Cardinals hit a big basket.
Each time the Cardinals scored to trim the lead, Tennessee answered. Reid's fastbreak layup pulled the Cardinals within 32-31 in the opening minutes of the second half, and Cain scored six straight buckets underneath for Tennessee.
Becky Burke hit a 3 that pulled Louisville within 40-36 with 12:40 left.
Simmons took over. She got the rebound of her own miss and scored. She then hit back-to-back 3s before Stricklen's layup gave Tennessee its first double-digit lead at 55-44 with 5:11 to go.