By Steve Williams

It took me over three years to become a fan of Meighan Simmons.

The Tennesee Lady Vol who Pat Summitt nicknamed “Speedy” was a turnover machine as a freshman in 2010-11.

I used to think there’s no way the UT women can win big on the national scene with Simmons on the floor.

How bad did I dislike Simmons’ style of play? Read the following excerpt from a column I wrote for The Knoxville Focus in April, 2011:

The long-awaited matchup (between UT and Connecticut) would have been this past Sunday at the women’s Final Four in Indianapolis, but the Lady Vols didn’t hold up their end of the deal. As bad as they played against Notre Dame, I still blame Summitt for this loss – the first in 21 games against the Lady Irish.

I’d seen it coming. I’d seen enough of freshman Meighan Simmons’ out-of-control play from the point guard position earlier in the season to know that would cost Tennessee dearly, if it was allowed to continue. And it was. And it did.

“Obviously, Meighan was not herself today,” said Summitt after the game. “Just looking at her stat line, 1 for 11 in field goals and 0 for 5 from the three, you can tell she was very anxious so we had to look to other people to do stuff for us. She is a freshman and sometimes we forget that with a great future ahead of her, but she had 4 turnovers. This was a big game that seemed a little bit different to her than playing through the SEC and getting here.”

In Simmons’ defense, point guard is not her true position. She will move to shooting guard next season (2011-12).

Simmons had 104 assists but also 104 turnovers as a freshman.

Even after she moved to shooting guard, I still didn’t become a fan of Simmons. I thought the Lady Vols had better outside shooters that didn’t get to pull the trigger as much.

Meighan sometimes didn’t strike me as being a team player.

That first impression – Simmons’ freshman season – was hard for me to shake.

When Simmons was named co-SEC Player of the Year as a junior, I tried harder to get behind her.

When Holly got Speedy to start focusing on being a better defender and a more complete player this season, I finally started to come around. When Simmons lets the game come to her, she’s at her best.

Simmons’ total field goal shooting percentage is .422 – best in her career. She’s averaging 16.2 points per game, just a little behind last season’s 16.8. Her assist/turnover ratio of 75 to 87 is her best since moving to the No. 2 position. Her 38 steals are the second most she’s had in a season. She and freshman point guard Andraya Carter combine to make the fastest backcourt duo I’ve seen in the game.

Simmons, who is from Cibolo, Tex., was never more a factor in a big win than she was in the 71-70 win over Kentucky in this season’s battle for the SEC tournament championship. Even though she had not played well over the course of the tourney, Meighan didn’t let that stop her in crunch time.

She knew her team needed her. She had to get in there. She stepped up for the team.

With 1:45 on the clock, and the score tied, Simmons went to the free throw line. You could see the determination on her face. Swish. The 2,000th point of her career gave her team the lead for good. Her second free throw made it 65-63.

Simmons’ work still wasn’t finished. Her driving layup made it 69-65 with 20 seconds to go. She knocked down two more foul shots with 10.7 left to make it 71-67.

“Everybody came out and did their roles,” a happy and appreciative Simmons told ESPN in the post-game celebration. “I just happened to be one (of them).”

The week before, on her Senior Day and after the Lady Vols toppled SEC regular season champion South Carolina, Simmons said Tennessee was going back to the Final Four this season, which would end a five-year absence.

In my book, Simmons is no longer the player the Lady Vols can’t win the big one with – she’s the player they can’t win without.