The team practiced for 2.5 hours – coach Pat Summitt milked every minute of her available time before clearing the floor for Thursday evening's men's game between Tennessee and Lipscomb – and will leave Friday morning for South Bend. On Saturday No. 1 Tennessee takes on No. 12 Notre Dame, 9-1, at 2 p.m. (CSTV, Lady Vol Radio Network) New Year's Eve to close out 2005. The game at the Joyce Center, capacity 11,418, is sold out.
Thursday's practice was split between offensive and defensive drills with specific game strategy for Notre Dame sprinkled in. The team returned to Knoxville early Thursday morning on a chartered flight from Philadelphia and gathered for practice at 3 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena. There were a few yawns and a little fatigue, but otherwise the session was adequate.
"It wasn't great, but it wasn't awful," Summitt said.
It was a relief for the staff to have Parker on the floor. Assistant coach Nikki Caldwell saw her go down against Temple. Summitt didn't, but heard the bench's reaction.
"Somebody on the bench said it," Summitt said. "I said, ‘What happened to her?' They said, ‘Ankle.' I said, ‘Good.' "
That's not callous; that's a coach's version of exhaling. Given Parker's left knee history – reconstructive ACL surgery in high school and meniscus and articular cartilage surgery last year that forced her to sit out an entire collegiate season – an ankle sprain was relatively welcome.
"When you've been plagued with knee injuries and ACLs and things like that – not that it's good anytime your kids get hurt – at least it's not that," Caldwell explained. "You're obviously thankful for it being just an ankle. But Candace is resilient. She came back in and gave us some quality minutes and good board play and good scoring. With our team our numbers have been cut short – we're down to 10 – so everybody is a factor.
"Everybody is needed. Whenever you see that with any of your kids you do hope that it's just something minor. I saw her go down. She said she rolled it pretty good. But we've got the best training staff in the country with Jenny Moshak and her staff. Tape 'em up and let's go."
Parker's health status wasn't the only bright spot in the Temple game. Sophomore center Sybil Dosty continued to underscore Summitt's faith in her, and freshman forward Alex Fuller, who had been limited by a hip flexor strain, showed she could play on the perimeter by scoring eight points and hitting both of her three-point attempts. She also had three rebounds, two assists and one steal in her 13 minutes of play.
Was that the best game of her very young Tennessee career?
"Offensively," Summitt said. "She's just got to learn how to defend on the perimeter, and it's an adjustment. We watched tape today. She just has to learn how to get low. She's going to be guarding perimeter players and not post players, and that's a significant challenge in itself."
Dosty had nine points in 18 minutes and also pulled down six rebounds to go with two assists and a steal. She has earned more playing time for her board play and showed again why Summitt has confidence in her.
"I'm really encouraged by how hard she's playing," Summitt said. "She's been tenacious on the boards, and that's what we need. I think that she has made other players more committed to rebounding. It is contagious. She's been a player that I think has really set a good example, particularly coming off the bench."
Another player came off the bench in senior center Tye'sha Fluker. Summitt moved junior Sidney Spencer into the starting lineup at small forward so that Parker could play power forward. She intends to keep the same starting lineup – Alexis Hornbuckle and Shanna Zolman at guard with Anosike at center – against Notre Dame.
When asked why, Summitt grinned and said, "We won."
When the question was clarified to ask why she made the change in the first place, the coach said, "I like Candace at the four. She's our best rebounder. And she just doesn't rebound from the three the way she rebounds from the four."
When Parker hurt her ankle, Fluker came off the bench to replace her in the paint. She scored quickly and brought a spark off the bench. Fluker finished with 12 points on 6-9 shooting and three rebounds in 24 minutes. She also had two assists and a block.
"I told her she could easily be starting for us," Summitt said. "I like her coming off the bench. I think she gives us tremendous energy. She's been very productive coming off the bench. You need that. As a team you need it."