Wright State’s Symone Simmons during Monday’s game vs. IUPUI in the Horizon League semifinals at Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit. Horizon League/CONTRIBUTED

Archdeacon: ‘X-factor’ Simmons propels Raiders into Horizon title game

The team calls her Junior.

“My freshman year there was another Symone on the team – Symone Denham – and she was older than me,” Symone Simmons said. “We were always getting confused of who they were talking to when they said ‘Symone,’ so they started calling me Junior.”

But the way she lifted her Wright State team onto her back in the fourth quarter against IUPUI on Monday afternoon and carried it into Tuesday’s championship game of the Horizon League Tournament, it’s time for a new moniker.

She’s no subordinate, no second fiddle, no Mini-Me.

She is no longer a Junior.

“She’s a monster!” Wright State teammate Chelsea Welch gushed after the Raiders had come from behind to topple IUPUI, 60-52, at Little Caesars Arena.

That puts WSU into a noon matchup with top-seeded Green Bay for the title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. It’s the third time in five years the Raiders have made it to the league’s championship game.

The Raiders finally were able to catch up to IUPUI – which had led almost all of the first 35 minutes of the game (there were two early ties) – primarily because of Simmons’ effort in the fourth quarter.

WSU trailed 40-34 after three quarters, but then Simmons — talking to herself the whole way – became a one-woman wrecking crew.

“All game long I talk to my myself to try to keep myself motivated,” she said. “And right then I was just saying, ‘OK, stay down on defense and rebound.’”

She scored nine points in the first five minutes of the quarter, the last basket a lay-up with 5:07 left that gave WSU its first lead of the game, 50-49. The Raiders never trailed after that,

Simmons also got five rebounds in the fourth quarter and that gave her a double double – 12 points and 10 boards.

“She’s a monster on the boards, it’s ridiculous,” said Welch, the Horizon League Player of the Year, who finished with 17 points. “She came out and hit some clutch shots and got some much-needed rebounds at the perfect time. She definitely gave us energy.”

When the game ended, IUPUI coach Austin Parkinson sought out Simmons in the handshake line so he could personally congratulate her.

“He just told me, ‘Way to play,’” she said. “And he told me, ‘I like how you stepped up today.’”

Parkinson praised the Raiders 5-foot-10 junior forward in his post-game press conference, as well:

“That was a tremendous effort from her. When you start this (semifinal) game and in the one tomorrow, if you’re going to win that type of game, your best players have to act like your best players.

“But you also need someone (else) to step up.

“She hasn’t shot it particularly well over the course of the year so our game plan was to help off of her. (Slack off her to concentrate on others.) And she stepped up with confidence several times.

“She took good shots and she also found her strength, which was offensive rebounding and driving to the basket.

“Obviously we’re disappointed today, but you like to see kids that step up in a big moment. You’ve got to give her a lot of credit.”

WSU coach Katrina Merriweather agreed with Parkinson’s game plan:

“Let’s be honest. Percentage-wise you go guard Mackenzie Taylor and you go guard Emily Vogelpohl. Like Chelsea mentioned, (Symone) has struggled from time to time, but what she does the majority of the time is play really, really hard and that’s what we saw today.”

Simmons – who leads the team in rebounds and blocked shots – is the starter who is shooting the lowest percentage from the floor (35.7) and especially the three-point line (25.7)

“I like it when people underestimate me,” she said. “I like to prove myself and let my game speak for myself.”

In her first three years at WSU, she’s had some games that spoke volumes.

She had 20 points against Central Michigan in the WNIT last year. She had 18 rebounds against Cleveland State last season and 17 this season. Against Oakland this season she had 10 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots and three assists.

Monday’s effort though came on a more important stage. It’s gotten the Raiders to within 40 minutes of an NCAA tournament bid. Something they’ve gotten only once before in program history.

“Today my adrenaline was pumping,” she said. “I was excited. I was feeling it to be honest.”

She began her fourth quarter barrage with a lay-up, then moved back and hit a jumper and then went deeper and hit a three. Finally came the lay-up that put WSU in the lead for good.

“Anytime someone asks me who’s a difference in the game, it’s always Symone Simmons,” said Merriweather.

“She is our X factor.”

She is no longer just Junior.