'Let's win one so we can come back'

"Let's win one so we can come back in 20 years and stand here." Those words were uttered by a Tennessee freshman as she stood with her team watching the 1987 title team at center court. A Lady Vol sophomore later had dinner with the champions and came away knowing a lot more about what it meant to play at Tennessee and for Pat Summitt.

Before Tennessee's Sunday win over Kentucky, all 14 members of the 1987 NCAA Championship team – the first of six national titles for Tennessee – gathered on "The Summitt" floor to be honored and recognized 20 years later for their accomplishments. The current team stood in front of their bench and watched the proceedings.

Student-athletes, because of age and circumstances, live primarily in the moment. With the demands on players' time and the expectations of performing in a top program they essentially have to do so to maintain their equilibrium. But on Sunday they got a chance to see the legacy of playing at Tennessee and how 20 years later the players still matter.

Freshman point guard Cait McMahan distilled the moment perfectly, according to a sophomore forward.

"I think the best way to sum it up is Cait McMahan said, ‘Let's win one so we can come back in 20 years and stand here,' " Candace Parker said, quoting McMahan's words to the team.

Parker then went out and scored 31 points to lead Tennessee (23-2, 10-0) to an 84-62 win over Kentucky. After the game she joined members of the 1987 team for a group dinner.

"It's neat to know that you always have family and just how they're teammates and how they've kept in touch over the years," Parker said. "I think the big thing is I went to dinner with a bunch of them last night and (Cheryl) Littlejohn was telling me that Pat Summitt prepares you. She talks about defense and rebounding, ‘Offense sells tickets, defense win games, and rebounding wins championships,' and in life there are going to be things that are thrown at you and you have to know how to rebound from them.

"She said Pat Summitt teaches you how to rebound not just on the court but in life. I think that's something she said last night that just really stuck with me. If they can make it through Pat Summitt's program they can make it through (anything). It was cool. It was fun to be able to talk to them and hang out with them."

All of the former Lady Vols who came back for Alumni Weekend - 57 in all - were honored at halftime, and they met with the current team before Sunday's game.

"We had pre-game and they all gave us their speeches and who they were," Parker said. "It was just neat to see players who played before Pat was here come back."

As the 1986-87 team took the floor they walked past the current Lady Vols, who applauded them and high-fived the former players. Considering that the freshmen on this team weren't even born when Tennessee won that first title – Parker would have been about to turn 1 year old – the familiarity was telling.

"That's weird," Parker said. "I was one when they won."

"She started watching us very early," Summitt joked. "She did, she and her mom and dad both."

"She's a special woman – very instrumental in my life," Parker said of Summitt. "It's cool to know that we know a lot of them and that speaks to how Pat Summitt is and her program. The players want to come back. Everybody on that team was here. That's amazing. Everybody knows Bridgette Gordon and Carla McGhee. We hear stories about it all the time.

"It's cool because we know a lot of those players and that's one thing that's good about Tennessee is everybody usually comes back and shows support for the program. We knew all of them so that's why we were high-fiving them."

Summitt joined her former players at center court, along with the assistants who won the title with her – Holly Warlick, now the associate head coach at Tennessee, and Mickie DeMoss, now the head coach at Kentucky – and felt her emotions take hold.

"More than anything it's really special to me to see how many of them wanted to be back and having them out at the house was really neat, because they told stories," Summitt said. "We laughed a lot, and I just realized how fortunate I've been to coach so many great players and competitors and the dedicated people to wearing the orange. I said you could get emotional about it.

"I don't ever walk into this building for a game that I'm not appreciative of our fans being in here and seeing our fans, watching the replay of the game (later at home) and the excitement and seeing all the students in the student section. It may sound crazy, but it touches me. I get emotional about it.

"I never want to take for granted what we've built and accomplished and who we are. I've always have the philosophy you never arrive so we're always trying to do a better job of getting people here and playing to a certain level for our fans. I can remember early on when we started averaging six or seven thousand. I'd go in at halftime and tell them we'd better hurry and get back out there or they're all going to leave if we don't play better."

A turnstile crowd of 16,946 – paid attendance was 18,952 – watched Sunday's game. The anniversary celebration came at a fortuitous time. This year's team has championship potential and players who are fiercely competitive, but there is nothing like a living reminder of what they are actually playing for – a national title.

"I think it's great anytime former players come back, and they have a chance to just be around our players, because they laid the foundation and you're talking a lot of tradition here, obviously a winning tradition but a championship tradition," Summitt said. "I think just being around them and listening to them I think it's certainly not going to hurt.

"I was telling them when I came here we had a staff meeting with some of the other coaches of the other sports. One person made a statement that tradition didn't really matter. I about fell out of my chair. We hadn't established any tradition, but tradition matters. I think you talk about it and you bring your former players back, and you let them talk about it. That's what I was telling them yesterday. I said to our team, ‘Don't ever think it doesn't matter. It matters.' The expectations of this program are tremendous year in and year out, but we don't want to change that."

Being prepared for those expectations was Monday's priority. Summitt watched film Monday morning on Ole Miss – the Rebels come to Knoxville on Thursday for a 7 p.m. Eastern tipoff (CSS, Lady Vol Radio Network) – and then met with her staff, Warlick, Nikki Caldwell and Dean Lockwood – to get ready for practice. The players responded with a crisp session that lasted two and half hours and covered a lot of ground – defense and board play and offensive and defensive wrinkles to the assorted attacks.

"It was very good," Summitt said. "We got a lot done. Our staff met today. We all four put our heads together and talked about where we wanted to get better, what we wanted to do, planned our practice and I thought, ‘It'll take three days to get all this in, but we got everything in.' "

So what needs to get better?

"Obviously rebounding," Summitt said. "I said I'm tired of everyone standing around and watching Parker. (Alexis) Hornbuckle's been good up until yesterday, but I'm not worried about Alexis' rebounding. But (Nicky) Anosike and (Alex) Fuller and (Sidney) Spencer and you just go down the list. It's like our guards don't think they have to rebound at all with the exception of Lex. We've just got to have a nose for the ball."

Kentucky beat Tennessee on the boards, 40-24.

"It was glaring," Summitt said of her later film session.

Summitt and her staff also saw some other areas to fix and used Monday's practice to make immediate adjustments.

"On our defense just having the discipline to close our screens and sprint out of our traps and working on our press and getting our coverage and looking at being big on the front of the press instead of small," Summitt said. "Just trying to get a little better."

The team, once again, responded with an efficient practice. Any miscues were quickly corrected. And they once again drained their free throws at the end and avoided post-practice sprints. The way they celebrated the makes indicated they had something left in case they did have to sprint. This group has stood out all season with its ability to get to work once the whistle blows.

"I think a combination of their maturity, their focus overall and the leadership," Summitt said.

Summitt, Parker and other players have mentioned this team's chemistry, in particular compared to past years.

"You sometimes can't explain it and sometimes it's best to not, just to let it be," Parker said. "I think we all realize what our goal is, and I think we all have different things that we bring to the table. We all know our roles. I think that's what's different about it is we all know what's expected and our roles. We have different attitudes and different ways of expressing ourselves. We do a good job of just keeping everybody in the game."

Those ways of expression were on display Monday in an upbeat session that had players pointing out good plays and holding each other accountable. Shannon Bobbitt was particularly energetic and kept up a steady stream of encouragement throughout the session. Perhaps it was Bobbitt's shot getting back on track Sunday – she scored 12 points and hit both three-point attempts – that boosted her spirits.

"I never know what excites them. Maybe she just had a good night's sleep," Summitt said with a smile.

Summitt will give the team off Tuesday. The players will return to practice Wednesday for scouting and additional preparation for the Ole Miss game.

The UT men take on Kentucky on Tuesday evening, and Summitt still intends to do something playful at a men's game as a return favor to coach Bruce Pearl, who painted his chest orange and cheered courtside for the Lady Vols last month. But it won't be until the Florida game in Knoxville on Feb. 27. Summitt has an out-of-town recruiting commitment Tuesday.

Summitt won't reveal what she plans to do at a men's game, but she was a cheerleader in middle school so she has some game day experience in that regard.

SEC HONORS: Candace Parker has been selected as the SEC Player of the Week the conference office announced Monday. The sophomore earned the award for the fourth time this season and the fifth time in her career.

In three games last week, Parker averaged 26.0 points and 10.3 rebounds. She shot a sizzling 62 percent from the field and went 22 of 25 from the line (88 percent). The Naperville, Illinois, native earned double-doubles against Georgia and Auburn to have 13 on the season. She was one rebound shy of her 14th double-double with nine rebounds against Kentucky.

Against Auburn, she eclipsed the 500-rebound plateau to join former Lady Vol four-time Kodak All-Americans Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings as the only three UT players to amass 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, 100 blocks, 150 assists and 100 steals.

Her 31 points against the Wildcats were her second-most of the season and marked the third most prolific scoring game of her career. She owns four 30+ points games.

Parker was also named to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District IV first team during the week, which makes her eligible for Academic All-America later in the season.

DOG STAR: Candace Parker's dog is starting to get as much publicity as the star forward. Fendi and Parker – along with Pat Summitt and her yellow lab, Sally Sue – are featured in the February issue of BARK magazine.

Last week Parker and Fendi were featured in USA Today in a package about celebrities and sports stars and their adopted mutts. Fendi, a large mixed breed who is named after an expensive line of handbags, was adopted by Parker from an animal shelter in Knoxville run by the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley.

"She's getting a big head," Parker said. "I'm trying to keep her level headed. I keep telling her she's not all that."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories