Parker tallied a double-double with 26 points and 12 rebounds and also added three assists, two blocks and a steal in the 89-79 semifinal win. Her points came from short jumpers and drives into the paint that Georgia seemed powerless to stop.
"Obviously Candace wanted the ball in her hands," Pat Summitt said. "She's a player that can see over people, as well as go around people. Not many people in the country that have the good fortune of having a player – I don't know what she is, 6'2, 6'3, 6'4, 6'5. Anyway, she can see over the defense. I thought that was huge for us."
The remark brought laughter – especially from Parker – because the redshirt freshman started the season insisting she was 6'3. The listed height inched up to 6'4 midway through the season, and she is actually closer to 6'5.
"I think this was a pretty hard-fought game, but it was difficult to fight their height," Landers said. "I was reasonably pleased with our efforts. … At different times different players stepped up. … Mostly the height difference created problems for us. We can't grow."
Tennessee opened with a quick start and built an 11-point lead, 16-5, in the first seven minutes. But the Lady Bulldogs fought back after Tennessee players took turns turning the ball over – the game had the feel of a boxing match in which the teams traded blows, but nobody could score the early knockout – and Georgia was within two at halftime, 34-32.
Georgia took brief leads in the second half by one and two points, and the teams were knotted nine times until Tennessee went up two on two Tye'sha Fluker free throws to get a lead, 60-58, at the 9:31 mark that it never surrendered.
Fluker finished with 19 points – in two tournament games she is shooting 73 percent (11-15) – and also played 40 minutes, an eye-popping stat for one of the bigs. The other three starters also were in double figures. Forward Sidney Spencer scored 10 points, and forward Nicky Anosike posted a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Anosike also moved to the perimeter to help guard Georgia's speedsters.
"Nicky came up with some huge plays for us," Summitt said. "Our frontline game last year struggled. That was costly for us. This year they've really stepped up and played big."
Guard Shanna Zolman scored 16 points and also had seven assists. She hit four three-pointers to put her season total at 82, the most ever for a Lady Vol. The previous mark was 79, held by Kara Lawson. Zolman now has 245 career three-pointers and is 12 away from breaking Lawson's school record of 256.
Georgia (21-8) had four players in double figures: starters Sherill Baker (20), Tasha Humphrey (18) and Megan Darrah (12) and 12 points off the bench from Janese Hardrick.
Tennessee out-rebounded Georgia, 40-22, and shot the ball well – 54.9 percent for the game for the Lady Vols compared to 41.7 percent for the Lady Bulldogs.
"The one thing that stood out in my mind was our ability to really do a great job on the boards," Summitt said. "If you can control the boards, you usually have a great deal of influence on how many times, how many possessions you get, how many opportunities you get from that. I felt we had a lot of opportunities."
Similarly Landers thought his team lost the game on the glass.
"Any loss is tough," Landers said. "This one really came down to the height and being out-rebounded. We can't compete with their height."
"I tried to step up and make some plays, but there are some things you can't gain – height," Humphrey said. "We have been outmanned due to injuries and height."
Tennessee's starting point guard – its second point guard of the season after Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood transferred in December – was sitting on the bench with a broken wrist so Summitt had to come up with a scheme to handle Georgia's pressure. The first game the Lady Vols played without Alexis Hornbuckle was at Georgia, and the Lady Bulldogs backed off the press the first time Parker threw over the top of it. But after watching Florida dismantle the Lady Vols at home with a full-court defensive attack a little more than a week later, every opponent had to realize Tennessee seemed very vulnerable to pressure. Georgia did and came early with full-court heat.
But Parker opened at point guard, and although she had five turnovers, only a few came in the open floor. It was a far cry from the game in Athens in which three perimeter players accounted for 15 turnovers in a game in which Parker had none. On Saturday Parker either took her defender one-on-one on the dribble or passed out of the double team by throwing the ball over Georgia's heads. She hung back in the backcourt to receive the return passes and broke Georgia's pressure with relative ease.
"I really thought the first half down there, they were able to do that," Summitt said of Georgia's ability to force turnovers in the open floor. "I think because Shanna could not see over people or she had trouble getting by them, and Candace went to the point, then we worked on this by design for tonight. I think that just because of our size and our passing skills, I thought we did a nice job of just passing the basketball.
"It's hard to beat Georgia off the dribble because of their quickness. I thought it was to our advantage to be aggressive off the pass and the dribble. We obviously got some fouls when we went to our dribble attack.
"I told our team, ‘Don't feel in a rush. We don't want to rush our offense.' I didn't mind if we got late in the clock; we just didn't want to turn it over. I'd rather have a five-second count than turn the ball over. I thought we had a lot of composure, even more tonight than we did in Athens."
Tennessee's passing ability continued in the half court. The Lady Vols had 19 assists on 28 baskets.
Attacking full court pressure with post players and putting the guards in the corners on the opposite end is not likely in any coaching manuals, but neither is the prototype for a 6'4 point guard in women's college basketball. Parker took the in-bounds pass with Anosike and Fluker in the backcourt with her. Zolman and Spencer stayed behind the arc roughly 90 feet away, where Georgia had to respect their shooting ability.
Backup post player Sybil Dosty, who is a true 6'3, marveled at Parker's stint at true point guard.
"That's crazy. She's taller than I am and bringing the ball up against the little guards that's really amazing," Dosty said. "She's handling the pressure really well."
Parker deflected the praise but acknowledged that it could be advantageous for Tennessee if opponents have to prepare for two very different looks at the point position.
"I think it is an advantage," Parker said. "We just all had to step up our roles when Lex went down. I think we all have. Nicky's handling the ball a lot more for us, and I'm running the point and Zo's running the point."
Zolman said the game plan was to take Baker, the SEC career steals leader, out of the action since Tennessee knew Baker would pick up Zolman, and someone would have to stick with her because of Zolman's sharp-shooting prowess.
"Something we really focused on tonight was Candace taking more of the point guard position simply because Sherill Baker's one of the best defensive players in the nation," Zolman said. "They just put me in the back corner and drew her away from it. Candace can take whoever was guarding her off the dribble so we were focusing more on letting her get us in the offense and I could come up, try to take it and do what we need to do from there. She did a great job bringing the ball up against their pressure. I was trying to be more of a decoy tonight."
Tennessee needed points from its long-range shooters, because anytime Parker touched the ball along the perimeter, the Georgia defense looked like a whirlpool collapsing inside to the center. Parker spent most of the game prowling around the perimeter and looking for openings inside, either by penetrating or passing.
"Sid hit some big threes, and Nicky was moving. I hit her one time coming through the lane," Parker said. "Tye was huge so that opened things up. I really didn't play a lot in the post today. We just moved the ball I think very well."
After putting up a 2-11 stat from behind the arc in the first half – Spencer was held scoreless in the first 20 minutes – Tennessee hit 6-9 from long range in the second half. Dominique Redding had one of the three-pointers in the first half, and it came after Georgia had chopped a 10-point Tennessee lead down to two by nailing some three-pointers. Redding's three pushed the score back out to 32-27.
"I was open, and my teammates saw me," said Redding, who finished with a stat line of seven points, two rebounds, one assist, one steal and zero turnovers. "It went in, and we needed them."
"Dom is clutch," Spencer said. "They weren't guarding her. I don't know if it's because they weren't respecting her jump shot or they just didn't find her in transition, but she definitely hit them when we needed them, and that's what we need from her."
It was Spencer's turn in the second half. She hit her first 15-footer in the first 30 seconds of the second half and then another mid-range jumper two minutes later.
"She was o-fer in the first half, but I knew that wasn't going to last too long," Redding said. "You can't keep her scoreless. That's like a given."
Spencer's threes both came with the score tied – 40-40 at the 16:10 mark on an assist from Parker and 53-53 at the 11:01 mark on an assist from Zolman. Does she just somehow sense when her team has to have a basket from her?
"No," Spencer said with a smile. "One of them the shot clock was winding down so we had to get some kind of shot and then the other one, two people or three people went to Candace so I just tried to take them off of her, get a little pressure off of her by making them have to guard her."
"Sid came up big tonight," Zolman said. "We were focused so much on going inside – I think they were sucking in – it was getting pretty difficult trying to get the ball in there. With Sid knocking them down early in the second half that opened up things more. She definitely knocked down some big shots."
Summitt welcomed the bench help from Redding. She also had to go to Dosty early when Anosike got in foul trouble in the first half. Dosty didn't score, but she had two rebounds and two assists on a kick-out to Zolman for a three and an interior pass to Fluker for a basket in four minutes of play. The post assist elicited a fist pump from Dosty as she headed down court.
"You never know when you're going to go in, but you have to be ready and watching the game and seeing how they're playing," Dosty said. "When Nicky went out with fouls, I was ready to go."
"I thought Sybil was consistent," Summitt said. "We didn't really lose anything there. We maintained our position. I thought Dom stepped up and did some good things for us. We need that off the bench."
The bench will need to be ready this evening against LSU (27-2). The game will tip at 6 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2, Lady Vols Radio Network).
The Tigers have cruised in their first two games, and the starters are rested. Tennessee had two players go 40 minutes in Fluker and Parker, and Zolman logged 38. Anosike and Spencer were held to 29 because of foul trouble. Spencer wasn't worried about the minutes played and said this matchup is likely what both teams wanted.
"Definitely. SEC rivalry. They beat us early on. We played them last year in the championship," Spencer said. "So I think it's going to be a great game. Our strength and conditioning coach, Heather Mason, got us ready for that back in August."
The matchup does give Tennessee its first opportunity at payback to one of the SEC teams that beat the Lady Vols this year. But Tennessee beat LSU last year in the tournament final in Greenville, S.C., so LSU will be seeking some revenge of its own.
"You're always excited to be able to get somebody back, but honestly it's about this matter at hand," Zolman said. "Everything else aside, with their revenge from last year's championship game, with our revenge from this year early on in the regular season, it's just about us and LSU. They're an unbelievable team. They play well together as a team. They have great defense. They have great offensive scoring weapons. It's just a matter of being able to contain them and being able to play our game as well."
Parker wants her team to cut down on self-inflicted wounds. Tennessee had 18 turnovers against Georgia, which only had nine, and although that was an improvement over the 21 giveaways in Athens, the Lady Vols know they have to take much better care of the ball against LSU.
"I think just playing hard, playing smart, valuing every possession, communication," Parker said, as far as the keys to the championship game. "You're not going to completely not make any mistakes, but you can limit it. We had some dumb mistakes today that we definitely need to limit tomorrow because LSU is a great team."
Summitt will stick with her same big lineup of Zolman (5'10), Spencer (6'3) and Parker (6'4) on the perimeter and Fluker (6'5) and Anosike (6'4) inside. LSU will counter with Sylvia Fowles (6'5), Ashley Thomas (6'0), Seimone Augustus (6'1), Scholanda Hoston (5'10) and Erica White (5'3).
"We're a monster team inside so it's going to be two monsters going at each other," Redding said. "We both have great inside games. Us, as guards, are going to have to get them the ball and then hit our open shots."
It was well past midnight when the Lady Vols were talking in their locker room about their next opponent in a game that would tip off less than 17 hours later.
"These late games are late," Zolman said, dragging out the word late. "You don't get back (to the hotel) for a long time, but you've got a whole day to prepare for the next game, rest up and get off your feet for awhile."
The Lady Vols will face a relatively well-rested LSU team that wants to add a tourney trophy to its regular season title.
"That's our goal," Augustus said. "Anytime we have an opportunity to win a championship we want to go out and compete and win it. We focused on winning the tournament, but for the most part we just want to go out and compete. This is a tough time of the season when you want to make sure your team is running on all cylinders and everything that needs to be intact is intact. Right now it seems we're headed in a positive direction.
"If everything keeps going the same, championship is bound to happen."
LSU's men's and women's programs won SEC regular season titles with the men's triumph coming in the West Division since the men split into two divisions. The Tennessee men took the East Division. Augustus was asked at the post-game press conference if that makes Baton Rouge the "capital of all things basketball."
"Of course. We are the capital of everything basketball," Augustus said. "The only thing (missing is a national title). That's the only thing they have over us. Everything about us is successful. A lot of people didn't expect our men to even challenge for an SEC title. It feels great that both of the programs are doing good, and we're striving towards getting championships, further our play into NCAA play."
For its part, Tennessee will look to do what has won it six national championships and 11 SEC tourney titles – rebound, play defense and get the ball inside.
"We're going to have to really take care of the ball because I think that they generate a lot of points off their turnovers," said Summitt, who pointed out that LSU gets a lot of attention for its offense but is just as strong defensively. "Obviously Fowles inside is going to really challenge our frontline game.
"But I feel good that we can go inside against them, and we'll look to do so. We just have to really take care of the basketball; we have to be able to rebound with them. For me, those are the two big stat lines you are going to take a look at and know how we're going to fare with a team like LSU."
LSU cruised to its second straight victory in tournament play by dominating Kentucky in the first semifinal game. The Wildcats put up some fight in the first half but couldn't stay with the bigger and quicker Tigers and fell 79-52.
LSU jumped out to an 8-2 lead, forcing Kentucky coach Mickie DeMoss to call timeout at the 17:00 mark. Kentucky, which drained three-pointers early against Florida on Friday, missed its first two attempts and then turned over the ball, which allowed the Tigers to run and get some quick baskets.
But then the scoreboard got stuck as neither team could score. LSU forward Seimone Augustus got LSU to 10 at the 13:10 mark with a short jumper, and Kentucky followed up with an air ball, missed shot in the paint and a turnover before Sarah Elliott finally hit a short jumper to make it 15-4 at the 11:16 mark, but Augustus immediately scored on the Tigers' end to give her 14 points in the first 10 minutes.
Kentucky started a comeback behind its three-point shooting – Natassia Alcius hit one while leaning backwards on the wing, and Jennifer Humphrey got a fortuitous bounce and roll from the top of the key – and the Wildcats cut a 20-point lead in half to 31-21 at the 3:30 mark. LSU coach Pokey Chatman called a timeout at that point, and LSU regrouped and went on a 6-0 run with three baskets by forward Florence Williams. The Tigers had a 16-point lead at halftime, 37-21, and Augustus, the conference's player of the year had 17 points on 8-12 shooting.
LSU started the second half in much the same fashion and quickly forged a 22-point lead, 45-23, at the 17:35 mark. The Tigers poured in points, and the game was over, for all intent and purposes, within the first five minutes with LSU taking a 24-point lead, 50-26.
The only suspense left at that point was whether or not Augustus would get enough points to break Chatman's single-game SEC tourney school record of 30 points after Augustus tied it Friday. She didn't and left the game with 29 points at the 9:49 mark of the second half when Chatman went deep into her bench.
Kentucky had some history in its favor. The last time Kentucky beat LSU was in 1999 at the SEC Tournament. The school's last semifinal victory in the tourney came in 1982 against LSU. But in 2006 LSU was simply too big and too talented.
"It wasn't the way we wanted to finish out the SEC Tournament, but I tell you, LSU played a heck of a game tonight," DeMoss said. "They're a heck of a team. … They're just so athletic. They're athletic, they're long, they're quick. If our passes weren't precision, I mean just right on time, they seemed to get their hands on it."
LSU scored 19 points off turnovers. Besides Augustus' 29 points, Scholanda Hoston added 10 and Sylvia Fowles had 11. Chatman was able to rest her starters – the most minutes anyone played was 30 by Augustus – as, for the second time in this tournament, she turned to the reserves early in the second half.
Kentucky was led by Alcius with 14 points and Elliott with 10 points. Samantha Mahoney had eight and hit two three-pointers. Humphrey finished with six. With the game out of reach DeMoss also substituted liberally in the second half.
"I thought from the first defensive possession we established ourselves on that end of the floor," Chatman said. "It was something that I challenged this team with leaving the locker room. I thought early on in the season we were a stifling defensive team at times and needed to get back to that. I thought it would set the tone."
The only concern for LSU was early in the second half when Fowles turned her right ankle and limped to the bench. But Chatman said the center was fine and would play today.
Tennessee assistant coach Dean Lockwood scouted the game from press row before his team played, because a Lady Vol win later that night meant UT would meet the winner Sunday in the final. Chatman and her assistants came out to watch the Tennessee-Georgia game from the same spot.
TOURNAMENT ODDS AND ENDS:
ALL-NAME TEAM: The Arkansas Democrat Gazette selected an All-Name Team for the tournament, and Tennessee's Nicky Anosike made the list. Others were: Ashley Awkward (Ole Miss); Blessing Chekwa (Mississippi State); Ebony Jones (South Carolina); and Cherish Stringfield (Vanderbilt). LSU's Pokey Chatman got the coaching nomenclature nod.
BEST NEWSPAPER NUGGET: From the Democrat Gazette. Under the title of "Duty Calls," the report stated: "Tyler Summitt was shaking his head as he scurried out of the media room while his mom, Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt was in the middle of an answer.
" ‘She wants a funnel cake now,' Tyler said. ‘Who, your mom?' asked a Tennessee assistant. ‘No, Candace,' Tyler said, pointing an accusatory finger at Lady Volunteers star forward Candace Parker, still at the podium with a wicked grin on her face."
The funnel cakes, delivered on a tray to fans by concession sellers, are very popular. When the Lady Vols team watched some of Thursday's action, a couple players could be seen indulging some funnel sweetness.
BEST LSU SIGNS: "U Geaux Girls" –held up by an LSU fan. "DUNK IT SYL!" – a reference to the 6'5 center Sylvia Fowles, who can dunk the ball, but has not done so in a game. "Life is short. Play like Seimone" and the flip side of the sign: "Life is short. Coach like Pokey."
WISHING THINKING SIGN: "No. 33 4-EV-A" –Seimone wears No. 33, but she's a senior – she earned her degree last August in general studies and will complete a second degree in business this spring – and will take her transcendent game to the WNBA next.
REACHING OUT: LSU fans occupied two sections of the arena and were separated by three other orange-clad sections. They chanted "Go" and then "Tigers" back and forth at each other before the game. One of the LSU sections was half-filled with Kentucky fans so they shouted "UK" after the "Go."
BEST CHANTS: "WE WANT SEIMONE" and "TWO MORE POINTS" by a small pocket of LSU fans across the court from the Tigers' bench. They wanted Augustus to break Chatman's record, but the coach was resting her superstar for the final.
BIRTHDAY WISHES: Kentucky junior Jenny Pfeiffer turned 22 years old Saturday. The Wildcats pep band held up a sign sending birthday wishes.
FOWLES EFFECT: Kentucky's Jennifer Humphrey, in attempting to avoid a Fowles block, shot the ball so high once in the first half it went completely over the backboard and cleared it by at least a foot.
BEST HUGS: The ones given to Kentucky center Sarah Elliott by her mother and father when she went into the stands after the loss to LSU.
BEST TENNESSEE SIGNS: "IT'S CP3 TIME" "CABOT, AR (heart sign) the Lady Vols" "Lady Vols Take it All"
BEST DUNK: Candace Parker in pregame warmups. Parker slammed the first one, which created a buzz and a shout of: "She dunked!" And then, "Do it again!" from those who had missed it. By this time most eyes in the arena were on her, and she threw down another one.
BEST TOSS: Fox Sports announcer Van Chancellor. He tossed hard candy to spectators while walking down press row.
SECOND-BEST TOSS: The Georgia cheerleaders. The females sit on the floor during free throws and pitch their pom-poms high in the air behind their heads on each made free throw. The males catch the pom-poms in their megaphones.
MASCOT SMACK: Georgia's Hairy. The Bulldog carried a small stuffed Smokey dog attached to a rope and twirled it overhead whenever a Tennessee player was at the free throw line.
BEST ON-COURT INSTRUCTION: Parker to Redding. Parker explained with words and hand signals the way to break Georgia's press after Redding came in in the first half.
BEST OFF-THE-COURT INSTRUCTION: Dean Lockwood. The assistant coach encouraged Dosty emphatically but gently right before she went in.
BEST SMILE: Redding's. The junior forward rebounded a Georgia air ball at a critical time late in the game to secure her second rebound of the game. Redding usually gets one rebound a game, and the second brought a huge smile to her face as she walked to the line since Georgia fouled her afterwards.
BEST SIDVILLE MOMENT: Spencer. After getting her fifth foul, Spencer headed down the floor to line up for the free throw. An official told her she was out, and Spencer held up four fingers to indicate she thought she had four fouls.
BEST LOST FANS: Three from Knoxville who got lost Saturday on the way to breakfast in Little Rock. Their wrong-way detour to get back on course took them past Summit Street and then an orange traffic barrel and then onto Victory Street. They considered it an omen.
BEST LEADER: Tye'sha Fluker. The senior had a lot to say Saturday to her teammates and in one official communication with an official. She implored, applauded, chided and otherwise stayed involved. The senior is clicking on all cylinders lately, even when the ball is not in her hands.
"I think it all started more so when Lex went out," Fluker said. "I just told my team I would step up in leadership – not only step up my stats in my play but just try to bring, you know, leadership through being vocal and being emotional to help us stay in the moment while we play.
"I thought it was my job to stay in everyone's ear, make sure we knew what we were in, just making sure I was positive out there. When we had mistakes, we got it back, didn't hold our heads down."
"She's obviously playing the best basketball of her career," Summitt said. "There's no doubt about that."