- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 18, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - Once Meighan Simmons stopped trying to do it all by herself, everything fell into place for Tennessee.

Simmons was selected as player on the year on The Associated Press All-Southeastern Conference women’s basketball team announced Tuesday, while South Carolina’s Dawn Staley was a unanimous choice for the coaching honor.

The AP awards also included newcomer of the year, which went to South Carolina freshman Alaina Coates.

Simmons, a 5-foot-9 senior guard, averaged 16.2 points a game to lead the Lady Vols (27-5), who finished second in the SEC during the regular season and won the conference tournament to claim a top seed in the NCAA tournament.

Staley was rewarded for guiding South Carolina (27-4) to its first SEC championship with a 14-2 mark. The Gamecocks also landed a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, despite losing to Kentucky in the semifinals of the conference tournament.

Coates quickly emerged as one of Staley’s top players, averaging 12 points and 8.0 rebounds.

Simmons acknowledged pressing a bit too much early in the season. The Lady Vols have been on quite a roll since she began relying more on her teammates, winning 13 of their last 14 and seven in a row.

“She’s the lone senior and thought she had to play perfect every game,” coach Holly Warlick said. “She’s not going to do that. I think the players understood that and they’ve kind of rallied around each other.”

Simmons is the unquestioned leader on a team with seven freshmen and sophomores, which is why she felt the need to take on such a major role.

“As players, we get so hard on ourselves,” she said. “We want everything to be perfect. We know everything’s not going to be perfect. Our coaching staff just told us we’re going to make mistakes, not everything’s going to be easy. We just have to go out there and just play, not think too much and worry about making mistakes.”

Tennessee, which hasn’t made the Final Four since 2008, will open the NCAA tournament at home against Northwestern State on Saturday. The Lady Vols have been eliminated in the regional finals each of Simmons‘ first three seasons.

She stressed this is not a personal mission.

“I just want to go out there and play for the team,” Simmons said. “A lot of people say it’s my senior year, I’m the only senior, it’s my last go-round, but I want to do this for them.”

The 43-year-old Staley arrived at South Carolina in 2008 and went 10-18 her first season, managing just two wins in SEC play. But the Gamecocks have improved every season since then, including three straight 20-win campaigns. This season, she led them all the way to the top in the nation’s toughest, deepest conference.

“From last night’s No. 1 seed to today’s award announcement, we continue to appreciate the national attention our program is getting,” Staley said Tuesday. “I love seeing our team rewarded for all of its hard work and sacrifice to put us in this position.”

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