AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) -- Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons still has the occasional restless night when she thinks about how her junior season ended.
She finds herself awake at odd hours remembering what went wrong in an 86-78 loss to Louisville that kept the Lady Vols out of the Final Four. Rather than trying to get back to sleep, she jumps out of bed and goes to work.
"When I can't sleep, I'm just like, 'I need to go to the gym. I don't need to stay in bed (because) there's somebody out there who's working twice as hard or maybe even harder to try to be better," Simmons said. "I've learned that since I've been here. At times I can't sleep, just get up. That's what I say to myself. 'Get up. Go run. Go shoot. Go do something.' "
Simmons doesn't want to leave Tennessee without earning the Final Four invitation that has eluded her thus far. When she discusses her hopes for her final season with Tennessee, the lone senior on the Lady Vols' roster doesn't bother mentioning individual goals.
"I plan to be a national champion," Simmons said. "That's the biggest thing."
She also wants to make sure her senior year doesn't end the same way her junior season finished.
Although Simmons earned third-team All-America honors from The Associated Press, she shot a combined 5 of 31 in Tennessee's last two NCAA tournament games.
In the Oklahoma City Regional final loss to Louisville, Simmons didn't make her first basket until 8:28 remained in the game. Simmons scored 12 points that night as Tennessee cut a 20-point deficit to three, but she shot 4 of 16.
"Those were the moments where I learned more about myself as far as me stepping up from the get-go and not just showing up in the last minute and making a play every blue moon during the game," Simmons said. "It has to be consistent."
Simmons has refined her game in search of that consistency.
She is spending the offseason trying to improve her ball handling. Her defense also has been a work in progress throughout her college career. Although Simmons got better in that area last season, she still has room for growth.
There's no question about her scoring ability and speed. Simmons ranked second in the Southeastern Conference last season with 16.8 points per game. The 5-foot-9 guard could feel comfortable challenging any women's college basketball player in the nation to a footrace.
"She's the quickest with the ball I've seen," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said.
That speed has been a big part of Simmons' game ever since the days when she raced her older brothers while growing up in Cibolo, Texas, with a picture of former Lady Vols star Candace Parker and former Texas standout Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil in her bedroom.
Simmons' speed has been catching people by surprise ever since she started getting serious about basketball.
Simmons' mother, Karolyn Simmons, remembers an AAU coach worrying that Simmons was playing "out of control" because she was so much faster than her teammates. Simmons was about eight or nine years old at the time.
"She cut Meighan from the team," Karolyn Simmons said. "Two weeks later, she called us back and asked would we allow our daughter to play because she realized she'd made a poor judgment call in her decision."
Simmons hasn't looked back since.
In a family full of athletes, she's managed to carve out her own niche. Simmons' cousins include New York Giants linebacker Aaron Curry and former NFL linebacker Eric Barton. She has an uncle, Reggie Pinkney, who played five seasons in the NFL as a defensive back. Her younger brother, Ryan Simmons, is an Oklahoma State linebacker.
Growing up in such a talented family taught Simmons to dream big. According to her mother, Simmons was about 10 years old when she started aspiring to play for Tennessee.
Now she wants to continue Tennessee's championship tradition. The Lady Vols haven't reached the Final Four since their 2008 national title, which represents the program's longest absence from that event the NCAA started running the tournament in 1982.
Simmons believes the Lady Vols could end that drought. Tennessee returns five of its top six scorers from a team that went 24-8 this past season. The 2014 Final Four takes place in Nashville, allowing Tennessee the possibility of playing for the national title in front of a home-state crowd.
"I can imagine seeing all that orange," Simmons said. "This is what I've been dreaming of. This is what I want."
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