Candace Parker doesn't like to talk about dunking – she prefers to keep the spotlight on the team – and she answered questions about it dutifully but with little emotion.
The feat itself was rather spectacular. She deflected a pass intended for the Lady Mocs Brooke Hand and was about to let the ball go out of bounds. Then she snatched it near the sideline and took off down court. Parker had nothing but open floor in front of her so she drove to the front of the basket and slammed it home. The student section – the dunk happened in front of them – erupted along with other sections of the arena. Some fans acted as if they almost were surprised or somehow missed it, and the cheers grew louder when the big screen video board showed replays.
"I was going to let the ball go out on the steal to be honest with you, but I looked and saw open floor and just decided to do it," Parker said. "I know that Thompson-Boling has never seen a dunk here at home. It was great – the support we had and the fans and their excitement and enthusiasm really helped us out I think tonight."
Parker was asked about not dunking at home last season – when she was coming off of major knee surgery – and she said, "I think I was a lot less confident in my knee than this year. It's kind of like come out today and just set the tone. I think we did that. The whole team just put their stamp on it."
It was clear Parker wanted to steer any talk of the dunk to the fans and then back to the team. So point guard Shannon Bobbitt, who was playing in her first official game for Tennessee, was asked if she was excited to be on the floor when the dunk went down.
"Really, I started to block her shot," said the 5'2 Bobbitt as Parker and junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who was also at the press conference, looked on with mouths agape and howled with laughter. "But I was like, ‘OK, she's on my team. I'm going to let her go, hey, you know what I mean.' "
"I was real excited. I saw her running. I was like ‘OK, she's going to give the crowd what they want. Go ahead, do it. Be careful, but go ahead, do it.' She did it, and we're going to have more fans for the next game, and we're going to do well."
Bobbitt closed her remarks, which sound even better in person with her Brooklyn accent, with a big smile. "Good job, ‘Lil Bit,' " Hornbuckle said, using Bobbitt's nickname.
Bobbitt was then asked if she had ever touched the rim.
"Yeah, back in my days," she said. "Back in her younger days," said Parker, who was still laughing. "When you were in playschool," Hornbuckle added.
The rest of the press conference was rather staid by comparison, but there was still plenty to talk about for No. 5 Tennessee, 1-0, after its season opener over Chattanooga, 1-1, before a crowd of 8,599.
Sophomore Alex Fuller had career highs in points with nine and hit a career high six free throws on six attempts. Her previous marks were eight points (Auburn, Feb. 23, 2006) and three free throws (Army, March 19, 2006).
Hornbuckle's points tied a career high (Maryland, Nov. 26, 2005) and she set a new mark for steals with seven with one more than she swiped against Princeton on Dec. 20, 2005. Hornbuckle has a streak of 37 games in which she has recorded at least one steal.
Hornbuckle also was 5-7 from the line and would have likely been perfect, but she was shooting the last two after getting hit in the eye. Walk-on Elizabeth Curry replaced her for the final seconds of the first half – freshman Nicci Moats also made her appearance in the first half – so every player in uniform logged some time in the first 20 minutes.
McMahan, who didn't play in the two exhibition games because she was rehabbing her knee, had four points, three rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes of play. Her first basket came as she snuck around the defense in the second half and curled in a layup.
Tennessee got solid play off the bench, especially in the first half when Parker and junior Nicky Anosike went to the bench with foul trouble. The Lady Vols had 17 steals and converted turnovers into 40 points for the game.
"I thought our team really played hard on the defensive end and generated a lot of opportunities on the offensive end," coach Pat Summitt said in her opening remarks. "I thought they played well together, and I liked their overall energy and intensity and the teamwork – very unselfish play across the board. I think with that you have an opportunity to get a lot of good open looks. We had good ball movement, good player movement, got the ball inside. Obviously they were collapsing on us so we had good inside/outside movement.
"It was a great way for us to get started, first game that really counts, also to get some quality minutes off the bench. It was good to see Cait be able to come out and play and play the way she played. I thought our bench played much better than they had in exhibition play."
The balanced scoring – everyone who played got in the box score except for Moats, who missed two free throws but did have three rebounds, two blocks and a steal; Anosike, with nine points (4-4 shooting) was one free throw away (1-3) from double figures – is something Summitt expects to see all season.
"I'd be disappointed if we didn't have balance," said Summitt, though she does expect teams' scouting report defenses to change. "I would imagine we will see more double teams on Parker. Somebody else is going to have to pick up. She's great at playing out of double teams, but I think there will be opponents that will really influence and try to limit touches of certain players, in particular Candace. I think a lot of people are going to guard Shannon. Shannon has demonstrated that she can shoot the three and penetrate. I think people may challenge some other players to make shots.
"I wouldn't leave Spencer open; I wouldn't leave Redding open. Fuller is good in her face-up game. Overall we've got good balance, but again the opponent will try to influence, I'm sure, and limit touches if certain players are putting up consistent numbers."
There were two stats that stood out that Summitt will look at more closely when she watches game film. Chattanooga, which was led by Hand's 20 points with six three-pointers, out-rebounded the Lady Vols, 37-27. The Lady Mocs also attempted 31 threes and made 13 of them, breaking a record set against Tennessee by Stanford (12 made on Dec. 21, 1992).
The lack of rebounds is likely due to two reasons: Tennessee shot 57.9 percent for the game – and 61.3 percent in the first half – and the number of long-range launches made for some long rebounds.
"I think a reflection of the shooting percentage, and I also think when you look statistically at 31 threes, that's a whole lot of threes," Summitt said when asked about the board totals. "I was probably more disappointed at the threes that we gave up, but I think that a lot of times they make 13 out of 31, you have some long rebounds, it's a little bit different than putting the ball inside more. So it was a different look for us, and I'll have to watch the tape to see how well we really rebounded the three ball, all the missed threes, because they have a lot of different bounces."
Summitt also acknowledged that she left the team in a matchup zone in the second half – not the ideal defense against an outside shooting team – because the game was in hand, and she wanted to get some game tape for future teaching purposes.
"They got more good looks in the first half than I would have liked," Summitt said. "I thought we played their perimeter game so much better at the three-point line in our man than we did in our zone. But we really wanted to work on our zone. They're not a team that we would typically play zone. If we've had your typical situation of playing against a team that shoots that many threes, we'd be in a man-to-man.
"I just felt like second half it would give us an opportunity to work on our zone, and now we've got some film. We always say the film doesn't lie. You see all of your mistakes. We'll have the chance to show them that. We went to it and stayed with it in the second half for that reason."
Hornbuckle, who has been relieved of point guard duties by the play of Bobbitt and McMahan, is free to roam the perimeter and disrupt the passing lanes, especially with full-court pressure. She saw a lot to like with the defensive performance, but the number of threes lofted got her attention.
"We had a lot of breakdowns, obviously they got off a lot of threes. I don't know the exact stat on that," said Hornbuckle, who was then told of the exact number. "They got off 31 threes? That's too many. To even get off 13 threes is a lot, so for them to make 13 we've definitely got to work on when we have a shooting team matching up on shooters, whether it's in transition, whether it's on screens, in out of bounds.
"Despite that fact I think we did well. I'm excited. I'm a lot more pleased this year with our defense compared to last year's team overall."
Chattanooga coach Wes Moore said the number of attempts was out of necessity, but it wouldn't be his strategy in the Southern Conference.
"Normally, no, it wouldn't be what you'd want to see," Moore said. "Their size is so overwhelming and then you take Alex Anderson out with 18 minutes left in the game due to foul trouble. So you do what you have to do. I thought our kids did a fairly good job of getting some open looks. They went to a zone defense, and that opened some things up a little bit as well. No, it's not what you want to make a living off of definitely, because you're not going to shoot that well every night. But everything changes when you play Tennessee. It's just a little bit different."
Moore also pointed to Tennessee's defensive pressure and said the difference from this season to last – when the Lady Vols won 92-50 – is the length.
"They're going to extend the defense full court," he said. "I think if this game would've been close they probably would have kept that full-court pressure on for 40 minutes. In the past a lot of times they have only pressed on made free throws, and when they made a lay-up, they try to jump you pretty hard then. But I think this year they may be pressing closer to every possession. The only thing that may hurt a little bit is their depth. I know they don't have quite as many bodies, but they will also be in great condition. That's what would scare me if I had to see them night in and night out."
Moore, tongue in cheek, cited the points off turnovers and wondered if instead of trying to keep the ball from Tennessee, his players should just hand in to a Lady Vol and create a held ball situation.
"What's frustrating, at halftime, I looked at the stat sheet, 24 points on turnovers we gave up," he said. "You take 24 points out, and it's 35 to 31. Sometimes we'd be better off just holding the ball, sticking it in front of them and let them tie us up rather than throwing it away. Because at least you're not throwing them two points, and you're going to get 50 percent of them (alternating possessions), which when we throw it up for grabs we're not going to get 50 percent of them against that team. It's something to think about maybe in the future. You've got to handle the ball, you've got to handle pressure, and we just can't simulate that in practice."
Moore was proud of his team – which was down 59-31 at halftime – for not giving up. Summitt was equally proud of her starters for setting the tone in the second half. They scored 22 points in under five minutes and pushed the lead to 81-44. After that Summitt called off the pressure and went often to her bench.
"I was pleased overall," Summitt said. "I thought we had a really good first half and again, player movement, ball movement, intensity on the defensive end, shot selection. There're a lot of positive things that happened. Our starters they came out of the locker room (after halftime) and scored 22 points in the first four minutes. I told them initially we're going to press and then I elected to take the pressure off full court. I thought they were very aggressive and very efficient in what they did in the second half.
"I think players have to understand if you're a starter you have a certain responsibility of starting the game and making things happen in a positive way. If you're coming off the bench, you've got to be mentally in tune with what's happening so that when you go in the game that we don't have a drop. I thought our bench in the first half really did a good job of that."
Hand said the Lady Mocs would benefit from the game, despite the score.
"It's something that's going to help us in the long run," Hand said. "It's nice to see that we're going to fight no matter how the game is going. We're going to keep playing hard and show a lot of heart. I think that's what this team is really made of is a lot of heart."
Moore isn't running away from top out of conference competition. The Lady Mocs play at Clemson on Thursday – "so we'll probably be sick of orange by the end of the week," he said – and they also will take on Alabama later this month in Tuscaloosa.
"We're not the most athletic; we're not the biggest. But we recruit good kids, kids that are going to have a passion and are going to excel," Moore said. "We're going to get better from it, and hopefully by the time we start conference play, maybe we'll be a pretty good team by then."
He added, "The best thing I can say, at halftime I mainly talked to our kids about not giving up. And I'm proud of them for that. I didn't want anybody to pick up the paper tomorrow in Chattanooga and say, ‘Wow, they must have packed the bags and gone home.' I think our kids battled. I do think Pat was very gracious in not continuing to press the full 40 minutes. Again, Brooke Hand and several of her teammates were able to do some good things, and it's something we can build on as a young team to try to get better."
Defense and determination were apt themes for this game, but the storyline still goes back to the dunk and Bobbitt. The pint-sized point guard – she is the shortest player for Tennessee since the 5'2 Diane Brady (1973-75) – made her debut with the fireworks and spotlight entrance that the Lady Vols use for official games at home. They emerge from the front of a makeshift tunnel that has a short set of steps.
"Wow. I loved it," Bobbitt said of the first experience. "I tripped in the back going up the steps but nobody could see it. Coming out I was excited. I thought I was just pro material coming out of there. You know what I mean? Coming out of there I did well."
Her words were once again capped off by a 100-watt smile.
As far as the dunk, Moore applauded it. His defender also showed good sportsmanship by peeling off in the paint when it was apparent Parker had broken free and was en route to the rim.
"More power to her," Moore said. "It's good for the game, and obviously she's a special player."
Summitt said she knew the dunk was coming when she saw the open space in front of Parker.
"I knew by half court that she was getting ready to dunk it, as soon as she got it in her hands and didn't have anyone between her and the basket," Summitt said. "It's probably a good thing to get that over with. I know she wanted to dunk it at home for the Lady Vol fans. I'm sure that's the reason that she took advantage of the opportunity."