KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - A story that has been one of the most-compelling in women's college basketball and beyond this season added another splendid chapter Tuesday, as Tennessee's success on the court translated to major accolades from the coaches of the Southeastern Conference.
First-year Lady Vol skipper Holly Warlick was named SEC Coach of the Year, junior Meighan Simmons earned SEC Co-Player of the Year and Bashaara Graves was chosen SEC Freshman of the Year. Simmons also added All-SEC First Team honors, while Graves was named a member of both the All-SEC First Team and All-Freshman Team, as voted by the league's head coaches.
Following in the footsteps of her legendary mentor and friend, Pat Summitt, Warlick led a Tennessee squad picked to finish fourth (media) or fifth (coaches) in the league to the program's 17th overall SEC regular season title. She became only the second rookie skipper to direct a team to an SEC regular season crown, joining former LSU coach Pokey Chatman (2005) in that club.
Despite losing all five starters from last season's SEC tourney champions and NCAA Elite Eight squad, and missing three starters for extensive parts of the 2012-13 campaign, Warlick guided this year's Lady Vols to a top-10 national ranking, a 23-6 overall mark and first-place record of 14-2 in SEC play. Seven of those wins were vs. AP or USA Today Top 25 teams.
For her masterful performance, Warlick became the fourth coach in SEC women's history to earn SEC Coach of the Year honors in her (or his) first season as head coach at a school. The others were Lois Myers (Alabama, 1986), Pokey Chatman (LSU, 2005) and Van Chancellor (LSU, 2008).
"I am very grateful to the coaches in our league for this recognition, but really this is about the commitment and effort of our entire staff as well as the players buying in to what we are trying to do," Warlick said. "The players have been willing to put in the work it takes and to accept the roles we've asked of them. They've also been so resilient despite all of the adversity we've faced this season with injuries, and they keep coming back for more. I really appreciate that quality and am glad to see what they've been able to accomplish thus far."
Simmons, a 5-9 guard from Cibolo, Texas, became the seventh Lady Vol in school history to be named SEC Player of the Year and earned the ninth overall honor. Other members of that group include Bridgette Gordon (1989), Dena Head (1992), Chamique Holdsclaw (1998, 1999), Nikki McCray (1994, 1995), Candace Parker (2007) and Shekinna Stricklen (2011).
A second-team all-league selection by the coaches and Associated Press in 2011, Simmons made the All-SEC First Team in 2013 for the initial time in her career. She did so as the SEC's leading scorer, averaging 17.7 points in all games and 19.3 points vs. SEC foes only. She leads the SEC in free throw percentage (83.9%), is third in three-point field goal percentage (37.3%) and is tied for eighth in field goal percentage (42.9%). She is also 10th in minutes per game at 32.3.
In 29 games this season, Simmons has scored in double figures 26 times, eclipsing 15 points on 21 occasions and 20 in nine contests. The only player to start every game for UT, she has paced the Big Orange in scoring 17 times. She tallied a career-best 33 points vs. North Carolina on Dec. 2, became the 37th Lady Vol to score 1,000 points in a career and now stands 25th on that all-time list with 1,412 points. That number ranks second among active SEC women's players.
"Meighan made a commitment to being a more complete player this season, and I am pleased to see that pay off with her performance on the court and the awards she has earned," Warlick said. Because of her willingness to make improvements in her game, combined with her competitive fire, she has been a difference-maker for this team on both ends of the floor. We understood that, and I am glad to see the coaches in our league have observed the same qualities in Meighan as we did."
Graves, a 6-2 forward/center from Clarksville, Tenn., became the program's eighth SEC Freshman of the Year. She joins Angie Bjorklund (2008), Tamika Catchings (1998), Gordon (1986), Head (1989), Holdsclaw (1996), Parker (2006) and Simmons (2011). She also follows the path of Catchings, Gordon, Holdsclaw and Parker as the only five Tennessee rookies to make the Coaches All-SEC First Team.
Not only has Graves been the top SEC freshman in scoring (14.3), rebounding (8.5) and field goal percentage (51.2), she stood out among all players in the league. She ranks fourth in rebounding and field goal percentage and is eighth in scoring through 29 contests and rates among the nation's top freshmen in all three categories.
Additionally, Graves ranks third overall in the SEC in double-doubles this season with nine, impressively posting double-figures points and rebounds totals against top-three teams Notre Dame and Stanford. She has started 28 of 29 games for Tennessee this season and has scored in double figures 26 times. Currently, Graves has the No. 3 rebounding average and No. 5 scoring average among all freshmen who've played at Tennessee.
"Bashaara showed up ready to work from day one, and she has continued to display that important characteristic all season long," Warlick said. "She has battled inside for us all year and put in a lot of minutes against some very talented players in this league and around the country. You certainly don't find that kind of consistent production from a freshman very often, and it became obvious fairly quickly that she was going to be one of those players for us."