Shannon Bobbitt and Sidney Spencer ruined that plan. Bobbitt hit three first-half three-pointers for her nine points, and Spencer hit three of her own – two in the first half and one in the second – and finished with 14 points. It was the last one that shattered UConn's chances for a remarkable comeback after the Huskies fell behind by 18 in the second half.
Husky guard Mel Thomas had tied the game at 58-58 with 4:49 left. Parker put Tennessee up by two with a jumper and then UConn's Brittany Hunter hit a layup and drew a foul on Dominique Redding to knot the score at 60-60. Hunter missed the free throw and had she made it UConn would have been in the lead for the first time since it was 9-8 at the 14:08 mark of the first half.
Instead, Spencer got the rebound off the missed free throw. At the other end of the floor Parker set a screen, and Spencer drained a shot behind the arc in front of Tennessee's bench to push the lead to 63-60 with 3:49 left.
When coach Pat Summitt was asked about the shot, she called it "big." When Auriemma was asked about it, he rubbed his head and his face repeatedly, remained silent for a few seconds and called it a "backbreaker."
Tennessee, 14-1, has now swept the Big East in three games this season – Notre Dame, West Virginia and UConn – to go along with its three-game Pac-10 sweep of UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford.
The West Virginia series is on the schedule to give Alexis Hornbuckle a game next season in her home state. But the Mountaineers coach ended up playing a role in this game. West Virginia lost to Tennessee in Knoxville on Dec. 20 and then lost to UConn on Jan. 2 in Morganton. After that loss Mike Carey compared the programs and said a team could score on the Lady Vols' post players and beat their transition with ease. The remarks apparently didn't sit too well with the players, and Summitt made a point of bringing them up before this game.
"After reading what he said I didn't know if we'd have a chance to win here, but I may send him flowers tomorrow," Summitt said with a smile in Saturday's post-game press conference.
The game started off slowly like two heavyweights circling each other in the ring, sizing each other up and hesitating to close the distance for combat.
Connecticut, 12-1, led early by five, 8-3, when Tennessee was missing shots – the three came from long range from Spencer – but then the Lady Vols took the lead 10-9, on a tip-in by Alexis Hornbuckle at the 13:27 mark and never lost the lead.
The score was tied, 17-17, at the 8:06 mark when Spencer hit another three, and Tennessee took off offensively and clamped down defensively. In one sequence Bobbitt stole the ball, drove the lane, and bounced it between her legs to a trailing Parker, who fed Alberta Auguste under the basket for a layup. Meanwhile, Bobbitt, Hornbuckle and freshman Cait McMahan took turns hounding UConn point guard Renee Montgomery and taking the Huskies out of their offense. At halftime the Lady Vols led 41-29.
Tennessee threatened to turn the game into a rout shortly after the second half got underway. A 12-point lead became a 16-point lead when Spencer stole the ball and fed Parker, who ran down court, flashed a small smile and went in uncontested for a dunk.
On UConn's next possession, Parker blocked Charde Houston's shot, grabbed the ball out of the air, dribbled the length of the floor and delivered a no-look pass to Nicky Anosike under the basket for an assist. Suddenly Tennessee was up 47-29 - the largest lead of the game at 18 - slightly more than two minutes into the second half.
It was a sequence that left those watching it in awe. A crowd of 16,294 – the Civic Center was packed to the rafters on all but one end in the upper deck – seemed stunned. But then Tennessee got out of the flow of its offense and missed some quick or tough shots with a higher degree of difficulty than they had been taking. UConn found its poise and whittled away at the lead before getting it under double digits for good at the 14:27 mark. When Thomas hit a three to tie the game with less than five minutes to go, the UConn fans were at full throttle.
But Tennessee never lost its composure and after Hunter missed the free throw that would have given UConn the lead, Tennessee ran a play to Spencer, who drained the three.
"The timing of it was obviously very important for us in terms of not having a big momentum swing," Summitt said.
"That was a designed play," Spencer said. "She (Parker) set a screen. My defender either went underneath it or ran into it. It was a great screen."
When Parker was asked if she knew Spencer's shot would fall, she smiled, leaned forward and provided a one-word answer, "Yes."
Parker led all scorers with 30 points and would have pushed that close to 40 had she not missed several shots early. She also had 12 rebounds, six blocks, four assists and one steal on one of the biggest platforms in women's college basketball – a packed house in Hartford and a national television audience on CBS.
"Look at her numbers and look at her presence and just what she did in this game," Summitt said. "Didn't start off as strong but as the game went on she just got better and better. She's better under pressure and to have a go-to player like Candace opens up other players. I think just how assertive she was today in taking the ball and getting to the free throw line; she stepped up really big for us."
When asked about the pressure, Parker pointed to the team's response.
"I think our team really pulled together," Parker said. "We knew that it was crucial. Everybody came together, kept their composure, and finished out the game. We know that UConn is a great team."
But Parker did deliver a statement on UConn's home floor with the sixth dunk of her career and the first on the road this season. She didn't see her dunk as the reason for UConn's comeback; she merely saw an opportunity.
"Two points is two points, but it's always momentum for our team," Parker said. "We knew Connecticut was going to come out with a run. I had the chance to dunk on Connecticut's court, and I did."
The dunk did fire up one UConn player in Brittany Hunter, who finished with six points, six boards and three blocks in 19 minutes, nine more than she expected to play because of a balky knee.
"Unfortunately, it really ticked me off," Hunter said. "I was really upset. I mean, it shouldn't take something like that to get anyone going. But, I mean, it was on your own court. Of course you're mad."
Houston also stepped up in the game and had 23 points and eight boards. But UConn's perimeter players – Thomas, Montgomery and Kalana Greene – were a combined 7-25 from the field, and the Huskies connected on only two three-pointers to shoot 18.2 percent from long range. Tennessee shot only 37.1 percent for the game but hit 41.2 percent from behind the arc with forward Alex Fuller also connecting from long range.
Houston almost had an huge play. She stole the ball on a bad pass by Parker – one of only 10 turnovers the Lady Vols had in the game – with Tennessee clinging to a three-point lead, 65-62, with 1:16 to go. But Hornbuckle poked the ball free as Houston headed up court, and it went to Spencer, who passed it to Bobbitt.
"I stole it and my first thought was to push it up the floor and then I got stopped," Houston said. "Someone kicked it out of my hand."
When a writer asked about the play, the question perplexed the Tennessee players because it was phrased somewhat awkwardly and the players heard it in such a way that it seemed the play was a turning point that hurt the Lady Vols.
"That was my fault. I turned the ball over," Parker said.
"Didn't we get it back?" Spencer asked. "We got it back," Hornbuckle said.
"We got it back. Got the win. Felt good," Bobbitt said.
Bobbitt was then asked by a writer if she felt the game sent a message.
"Definitely, especially to the West Virginia coach, it's going to definitely send a message to him and everyone out there that we're going to be a great team, and we're a Final Four team," Bobbitt said.
Bobbitt, a native New Yorker, clearly was in her element – a packed press room of primarily Northeast media members who want players to talk some smack and ask somewhat leading questions – and the same writer pushed the question to ask what message the game sent to UConn. Bobbitt hesitated for a second, and Hornbuckle stepped in to defuse the question for an un-credited assist.
"I think it says they're a great team to contend with, and we're a great team," Hornbuckle said. "Two great teams played tonight and we gave what the fans and CBS were watching for."
The writer, clearly irritated, said to Hornbuckle, "I asked her, not you." Spencer, who had politely thanked another writer for pointing out that her missed shots in the game didn't hurt her confidence on the key three-point shot, was taken aback by the remark.
"I'm trying to help her out," Hornbuckle said. "It's a team, baby."
The exchange was apropos considering how the game unfolded for Hornbuckle. She had a miserable shooting performance – 2-10 from the field – but found other ways to help her team by getting six rebounds, three assists, one block and a steal, which gives her at least one in 51 consecutive games. Hornbuckle also disrupted UConn on the perimeter, along with Bobbitt and Spencer.
"In practice we always try to pick up the point guard early," Hornbuckle said. "We knew that was key because if they get into the flow, transition, their running game starts going for them, that's bad news for us. I think Shannon Bobbitt did a great job of identifying the point early and slowing them down. Me and Sid and whatever other wings were in we did whatever we could to assist that."
Auriemma said Montgomery got intimidated physically in the game. Parker blocked her shot – another one of Parker's volleyball spike-like rejects this season – at the 17:04 mark of the first half, and Auriemma said his point guard stopped attacking the basket.
"Renee didn't get into the lane, and that's one of the things that she's able to do against most teams," Auriemma said. "She may be too young to understand when you go into the game against really good teams, guess what, they block your shot once in awhile. So now you have a choice: Stop going in there or keep attacking them. And she stopped. Maybe next time she'll realize that you go in and they block it. The next time you go in that guy was coming from someplace else to block it, which means wherever they came from that guy's open. It's all part of the process."
Meanwhile, Tennessee's point guard was playing in her first game in this series, but the junior didn't seem fazed by the environment. Bobbitt, who was born in the Bronx and played in Manhattan, went the junior college route and came to Tennessee last summer. She has earned praise from Summitt for her work ethic and willingness to learn in the preseason and game management as the season has progressed.
"I didn't really talk to Shannon about the stage she was going to be on," Summitt said. "I think she understood it, but Shannon, she's grown with each game. She's definitely matured as a leader and just having the composure that she needs to have in running our team. Her leadership has really been terrific for us. Very, very proud for her today. I know she's got her family here today, and she's all excited. She almost didn't come to the press conference. We made her."
Bobbitt smiled as Summitt, who also was smiling, said that.
"It was a great experience for me and a learning experience at the same time. I enjoyed it, it was a great win, and I know we're going to have more to come," said Bobbitt, whose play wasn't affected on the court one way or the other by her family seeing her in orange for the first time. "No, I play the same way every game."
Last season when Tennessee won in Knoxville, Spencer took the UConn coaching staff by surprise when she uncorked five threes. This time they were ready for her, but they also knew they had to keep a body on Bobbitt.
Auriemma said Bobbitt's three open looks in the first half were mistakes on the part of the Huskies – they left her open in transition, they got caught on a back screen, and they were trying to sag inside on the post and Bobbitt got a kick-out.
He was left after the game to rue several plays – Spencer's three in the second half, Houston's steal and subsequent turnover, Hunter's offensive foul at the 2:30 mark with Tennessee up by three after Spencer's three and Bobbitt's threes.
"As I said there's maybe five plays that you look at and say if you could have those back maybe it changes the game," Auriemma said. "There's nine points right there (by Bobbitt). If you play a really good team you can't afford to make those kinds of mistakes. Again, as I said, if I thought that there were some things there that we didn't have any answers for down the road then I'd be really, really worried about it. Where's the end for our team this year? But if we can fix a couple of things, like those three possessions, that's what we're going to do."
Summitt and Auriemma seemed to agree that Parker's dunk wasn't the cause of UConn's run. It was a combination of UConn's talent and determination that led to the comeback.
"In any game against an opponent as talented as Connecticut you understand you're going to have to answer runs, and we talked about that in the timeouts," Summitt said. "It took us awhile to really set our defense but once we got off of our heels and got a little bit more aggressive defensively, particularly in the last three minutes, I thought we had better control of the tempo of the game."
Said Auriemma, "I felt that when Brittany and Ketia came in the game in the second half I think that they changed the whole complexion of the game. Basically it changed us into a five-man basketball team that was trying to win and makes plays as opposed to everybody standing around and hoping Charde would win the game by herself.
"Brittany said she was going to play ten minutes today and she ended up playing nineteen. I wish it was 39 minutes but unfortunately we're not to that point yet. Obviously she gives us something that very few teams have. That offensive foul was just unfortunate, the one good call the refs made the whole freakin' day would have to be that one. It was a good call. It was an offensive foul."
Tennessee was whistled for 16 fouls; UConn got charged with 13 fouls. Tennessee was 11-15 from the free throw line, with Parker hitting 6-9 in a very physical game. UConn was 10-17 from the stripe. Tennessee got two of its free throws after a technical foul was called on Auriemma in the first half after he protested a rather obvious over-the-back call on Kaili McLaren, who ended up with six points and five boards in her debut in the series. Spencer hit both.
Tennessee led the battle of the boards, 24-20, at the half, but UConn closed the gap and finished with a 44-40 edge, thanks to 10 dead-ball rebounds – those that go out of bounds after a shot without a player gaining possession – compared to four for Tennessee.
"Watching tape on this Connecticut team and coming in I had some real question marks about whether or not we could hang with them on the boards," Summitt said. "I thought that was going to be a real challenge in this game. Obviously we managed to do a good job of that."
In the end for Tennessee it was some timely three-point shooting and clutch shots down the stretch.
"Three-point shooting is always big in close ball games," Summitt said. "Certainly we were trying to get Sidney as many touches, as many good looks as possible. And what I think we're seeing from this team is they're understanding the strengths of each player on the floor (and when to get Spencer and Parker the ball). I just think when you have that kind of leadership on the floor and a team that's very committed to getting people good touches" good things can happen.
Hornbuckle seemed to know this before the game tipped off and approached Spencer and Bobbitt.
"I looked at both of them before the game and was like, ‘I need y'all. I need y'all to knock down open shots,' " Hornbuckle said. "I was like, ‘Sid, you got it?' And she just looked me in my eyes and (nodded), so from then I was confident from the rest of the game on. They did a great job; they did exactly what was asked of them."
Hornbuckle also found Parker for their favorite hookup play – a lob pass for the alley-oop layup in the first half.
"There's a plus to be Candace Parker's teammate," Hornbuckle said. "She speaks volumes. Defensively she blocked six shots and on the offensive end she was going hard to the hole, regardless if they were calling it (fouls) or not. She was there; she was that spirit that we needed. Every time we looked up she made a play that was much needed, very timely, and we fed off that each and every time. That's very key. We can't do without that."
Auriemma certainly spared no praise when discussing Parker, who played all 40 minutes, and invoked the name of UConn's best player, Diana Taurasi, when discussing her impact on the game.
When his players were asked about the dunk – which once again made SportsCenter's Top 10 plays – Auriemma interrupted and said he'd answer for them.
"Hell yeah," he said. "I wish one of my guys would have done it. … I'm not one of these guys that think just because you dunk the ball, that makes it any different. Two points is two points whether you lay it up off the glass or dunk it. It's still two. I think it's more of an expression of an individual's sometimes intensity level, sometimes emotion.
"It's an expression. More power to her. It wasn't like some of those contrived dunks that they got for (former Lady Vol) Michelle Snow. This was legit. You steal it, go down to the other end. Happens all the time in the men's game and nobody ever asks is that appropriate. Hell yeah it's appropriate. When you try to orchestrate it, you're embarrassing the other team. I think in this game, you steal the ball, you go down, and you want to show some oomph, go ahead and do it."
When asked about the Parker's sequence – dunk, block, assist – Auriemma said it was unparalleled in the women's game.
"I don't think that there's been anybody just from the little time that I've seen Candace play this year," Auriemma said. "I remember Cheryl Miller was big enough to do those kind of things back in the day (except dunk).
"But I think the time that Candace spent with the U.S. team and being around that game, that kind of experience against that level of players, I just think her intensity level and her concentration during the game is so much better now than it was before that all the skills she had are more evident now than they were. She had those skills to be able to do those things, but she would lose some of her focus, some of her concentration and not be able to keep her intensity level. There was a stretch where I thought she wasn't as much of a factor and that's when we made our comeback, but there were also stretches where she was so dominant that we had no answer for her.
"It's kind of like when we had Diana. What's the answer? Guess what, there is no answer sometimes. Sometimes you've just got to hope she has a bad game or you've got to hope the other guys around her don't play well. Individually, I don't think there is an answer. You can get 30, and your team might still lose. You can take your chances and run a couple of people at her and other people are making shots, you're going to lose. When you have a great player that demands that much attention you just have to hope you execute at the other end. In spite of Candace getting 30, she'd still get 30 and we take away from the threes, we win the game. It's a fact of life. I think they've got the most talented player. And for the first time probably since I've been at Connecticut I made a decision to not double and triple team the other team's best player. That's the first time I ever did that."
Auriemma had hoped Parker would get her points and her teammates would fall short. But Tennessee had enough offense from Spencer and Bobbitt and enough stops on defense to prevail.
The team left its downtown hotel about two hours before the game with a few dozen folks in orange cheering as they boarded the bus for a two-block ride to the back of the Civic Center in weather that felt like a spring day in Knoxville. The UConn crowd politely cheered the introductions of the Lady Vol starters – with some rousing applause when Summitt was introduced – and watched as Auriemma was presented with the 600-win game ball that he earned the last time UConn played in Hartford against Sacred Heart. Summitt and her staff applauded that presentation.
Then those in attendance were treated to a game with a postseason feel as two juggernauts slugged it out on a national stage.
"Generally speaking you either get beat by a really good team that's better than you, you lose because you don't compete as hard or as intelligently as you'd like or there's a combination of two," Auriemma said. "Then you've got to figure out what things can we fix; what things can we not fix.
"You can have a game like this and know we just played one of the better teams in America. They had their way with us and instead of rolling over and playing dead like we could have, we had a chance to win the game: a big win. There's no consolation in not winning so you have to say if we would've fixed some of the things that we didn't do and we played them again, or a team like that, in March I would like our chances. But there're maybe four or five plays in the game that in spite of everything may have turned the game around either way. Look at Charde's steal. There're a couple plays we go back and fix them maybe we come out on the other side."
Summitt's team has been in this type of atmosphere several times this season with games at Arizona State, Texas and North Carolina.
Summitt, who will give her team a much-deserved day off Sunday and return to practice Monday, cited the schedule as the reason her team was ready Saturday for a hostile environment – the crowd of more than 16,000 was almost double the size of any road crowd this season, but Tennessee wasn't rattled.
"I'm extremely proud of this team," Summitt said. "They've obviously had a lot of tough competition. I think our schedule helped us prepare us for this, just going on the road and playing at Arizona State and playing at North Carolina. North Carolina was a place where we didn't match the intensity of our opponent consistently, and I think we grew from that, as well as playing at Texas and Old Dominion. This team today did a great job. I'm really proud of what they did."