"This team is very special," Coach Pat Summitt told the crowd of several thousand who stayed in their seats for the Dayton Region trophy presentation.
One by one the players and coaches ascended the ladder to snip down the net. Bobbitt and Auguste tied strands on the straps of their Final Four ball caps. The loudest roars from the crowd came when Parker climbed the ladder and when Summitt cut the final strands and held the net aloft as the band struck up "Rocky Top."
Summitt thanked the fans – 18,055 people attended the three games in Dayton with 8,205 on hand Tuesday – for "making this the best atmosphere of any regional in the tournament."
The Lady Vols waved to the fans as they left the court wearing ball caps and regional championship T-shirts and they continued their celebration in the locker room amid TV cameras, media and well-wishers from the university's administration.
The players were happy but not overly so and eagerly dug into a post-game spread of nachos and tacos. They have made it clear that their goal is winning a national title, not just getting to the Final Four.
"It hasn't really sunk it yet," Spencer said. "We're thinking about our ultimate goal, and this is just part of getting there. It's a blessing to advance to the Final Four, but now we want to move on and get ready."
A sweating Parker – the locker room was as hot as the court area – was surrounded by cameras and reporters, who wanted to talk about her scintillating performance on both sides of the ball. She had 24 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks, three assists and three steals and was named the regional's Most Outstanding Player.
"This is one of the reasons why I wanted to come to Tennessee," Parker said. "I want to win a national championship, and I'm really excited because this is the first step to doing that."
In the post-game press conference Anosike offered Parker her highest praise because of Parker's performance on defense.
I told Candace at halftime, ‘Candace, I'm so proud of you,' because I really respected her this game," Anosike said. "She played both ends of the floor equally. She gained my respect today."
Parker, who was sitting beside Anosike, looked at her teammate and smiled.
"I just knew it was going to be very important for us to get off to a great start, and I just really know as I go our team goes," Parker said later in the locker room. "I really just wanted us to have energy and for me to have a presence and not just be known as a person who plays one end of the floor."
Anosike joined Parker in the block column with two and also added nine points and nine rebounds to her stat line.
Four players for Tennessee scored career highs for points in an NCAA tourney game – Spencer with 22 (previous high was 12 vs. George Washington in 2006); Bobbitt with 14 (previous was 11 vs. Marist in 2007); Auguste with 12 (previous was seven vs. Drake); and Fuller with nine (previous was eight vs. Marist).
Tennessee set five NCAA Tournament records for Dayton Arena – most points in a game; greatest margin of victory; best field goal percentage; best three-point shooting percentage; and most points scored in a half.
Parker's blocks gave her 98 for the season and established a new single-season record at Tennessee, breaking the 93 blocks by Teresa Geter.
Parker's 14 rebounds were a career high in the tourney, besting the 12 she had against Pitt two games ago. Two other Lady Vols also set career highs for tourney boards – Fuller with seven (previous high was five vs. Pitt); and Auguste with seven (previous was six vs. Drake).
Overall Tennessee owned the glass, 49-31.
"Before the game coach told us that defense wins games and rebounding win championships and I think that really stuck in everyone's mind, and we just wanted to get out there and get after it," Anosike said.
Tennessee did just that. The Lady Vols beat Ole Miss at its own game with suffocating defense and transition offense. Bobbitt opened up the game for the post players by draining two three-pointers for Tennessee's first six points. The first came in the right corner off an in-bounds play, and the second came from the left corner after Tennessee beat Ole Miss' press. Hornbuckle got the assist on both buckets.
The shots seemed to suck some air out of Ole Miss' defensive attack and pump up Tennessee.
"Those two three pointers she hit got them on a roll and they fed off the hype from that," Ole Miss' Ashley Awkward said. "Her hitting those two threes just put gas on the fire."
Parker noticed the effect the shots had on the Rebels.
"I think it took a lot out of them and it opened up things inside, and we got more things in the middle because they couldn't leave her alone," Parker said.
Bobbitt got loose for those shots – "She's so little," Parker said – so Ole Miss tried not to lose her again. That meant Parker and Anosike had a lot more room inside to operate since Ole Miss had to get defenders on the outside shooters.
"Those are big-time shots," Hornbuckle said. "Like you said, it set the tone for us, it gave us the enthusiasm to continue on that we needed. We came out very pumped up for this game and had a strict mindset on what we wanted to do – get off to a great start and Shannon did that for us. She was open and she knocked down some shots."
Bobbitt wasn't the only one. Parker was 10-14 from the field and Spencer was 6-10. As a team Tennessee shot 52.3 percent for the game and 72.7 percent from behind the arc. Bobbitt was 3-3 from long range, Spencer was 2-3, Hornbuckle was 1-1, and Redding and Fuller hit one 3-pointer apiece for the 8-11 tally.
Tennessee's 98 points were the fifth-most in a regional final, and the 36-point margin of the victory was the highest ever. Summitt substituted freely in both halves and called off the press break and had the point guards walk the ball down the floor for most of the second half, but Tennessee's offensive execution kept clicking.
"I think we just played basketball tonight," Summitt said. "We played with a lot of freedom offensively. I thought we made a lot of good decisions. We had good player movement, ball movement, and we had some great screening actions. It was without a doubt one of our best offensive games. As I look at our run in the tournament, it's the strongest game that we played. I told Carol that after the game. This is by far our best effort. We've gotten better with each tournament game."
Ole Miss Coach Carol Ross, who had her team believing in itself throughout the Rebels' tremendous tourney run, came out of the game believing she had seen a championship contender.
"They really came out aggressively and attacking, which is what a hungry, motivated team does," Ross said. "We recognized it, because that's been the team we've had in the locker room. But they came out with a fire in their eyes, a pep in their step. They were quicker to every ball. They were crisp. They were just really good.
"Certainly, Candace Parker was really good, which we've all come to expect. Her supporting cast was tremendous. Pat's the best at getting her teams to postseason play. There's no question she had them ready to go. They looked every bit as good as any Tennessee championship team I've seen."
Ole Miss was led by its amazing player, Armintie Price, who had 30 points and hit 11-12 free throws. Awkward added 14 points for the Rebels. Both players were named to the Dayton Regional All-Tournament Team. The other representatives were Courtney Paris of Oklahoma and Bobbitt and Parker of Tennessee.
It was a brilliant run for Price, who averaged 28.5 points in her four games in the NCAA Tournament. She averaged 30.5 ppg in the two games in Dayton. Price kept putting forth effort even when the outcome was well in hand for Tennessee.
"Armintie is just going to play," Ross said. "She's not playing the scoreboard; she's playing the game of basketball. She plays it well. She plays it with a lot of energy and intensity, and she only knows one way to play. And, the scoreboard has never dictated her effort or her energy.
"Tonight was a great example of someone who just persevered, continued to play determined and gave great effort and had great individual stats. I can tell you Armintie would have rather scored three points and took home a win than to have put up the numbers she had."
Ole Miss got offensive production from Price – she had 15 of the Rebels' 22 first-half points – but she couldn't outscore the Tennessee team, especially on a night when the Lady Vols handled the vaunted Rebel defensive pressure. Ole Miss only had six steals, and Tennessee limited itself to 15 turnovers, including several that were unforced.
Ole Miss got 29 points off of turnovers against Oklahoma. The Rebels were held to seven points in that category against Tennessee, which got 18 points off turnovers. The bench contributed 24 points for Tennessee led by Auguste with 12 and Fuller with nine.
"Shannon Bobbitt was huge for us at the beginning of the game hitting those huge threes," Parker said. "Obviously Sid came to play, as well. I feel like Nicky and Lex did a great job defensively and getting on the boards for us. We put a game together and also our bench came in and we raised the bar when our bench came in. It was fresh new legs and came in running, playing defense, Bird in particular was huge for us."
More importantly Tennessee played two halves of basketball, something it didn't do in the 65-46 win over Marist on Sunday.
"I was really proud of how we didn't let down," Parker said. "We came in with the same energy in the second half as well."
That had been a focal point coming into this game. Summitt was happy to get a semifinal win, but she wanted to see that this team would compete for 40 minutes at this crucial point in the postseason.
"The one thing that we talked about after playing against Marist is we played great for the first 20 minutes, and then we had a lot of lapses in the second half," Summitt said. "If we are a team that is really on a mission to win the national championship, we have to understand that we don't take possessions off. We really challenged our team and they responded very well. Certainly, we established our inside game early. I thought our defensive intensity and board play was as strong as it's been. Great to see that not only from our starters that are sitting up here, but I thought we got some good solid play off the bench as well. Great win for our team."
The players were all smiles in the steaming-hot locker room after the game, but it wasn't a raucous celebration. There was some relief to have made it to the Final Four – the team understood last year how elusive it can be – but this clearly was just one more step in the process.
"You can tell by our demeanor after the game that we weren't satisfied, and we're not," Anosike said.
Still, for two Lady Vols, Parker and Fuller, who have been to a Final Four but had to sit and watch since they took redshirt years to rehab from knee surgery, the first one as players was special.
"It's our first one playing so it means a lot to us that our team got us there, helped us to get back to the Final Four and hopefully for our seniors – we don't want them to go home empty-handed – we'll win it all for them," Fuller said.
"It feels amazing," Parker said. "I would have given my left arm to be on the court when we played in the Final Four last time and now I'm finally able to step on the court and wear Tennessee across my chest."
DEFENSE MATTERS PART I: Coming into Tuesday's games the top four teams in scoring defense in the tourney were LSU (41.7 points allowed), Tennessee (45.7), Rutgers (47.7) and North Carolina (48.3).
That also happens to be the Final Four field with Tennessee and North Carolina squaring off in one semifinal and LSU and Rutgers meeting in the other April 1 in Cleveland.
A team with an intimidating defender can be the difference maker in a game as Sylvia Fowles showed in the regional final with UConn and as Candace Parker exhibited Tuesday evening against Ole Miss.
"When Candace plays defense it's great," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "You think you've got an open layup and there's a shot blocker. You think you've gotten by somebody, and there she is deflecting the ball or getting a tip or getting a steal. It takes us to a new level."
That was certainly reflected in the remarks Nicky Anosike volunteered about how Parker earned her respect.
"She's done a lot of great things for us but tonight Nicky spoke her feelings about watching Candace play tonight," Pat Summitt said. "She played both ends of the floor. In the Marist game I was a little upset with her because I didn't think she was giving the effort defensively, particularly in the second half. But when she plays both ends of the floor, we separate ourselves.
"She separates herself out in the paint, but she motivates everyone on the floor. I think that's just inspiration that gives us a lot more fuel, if you will, on the court and everyone was so excited about the type of defense she played early, and it really got us all going."
Parker definitely raised the bar and has set the level of expectation higher. Summitt said in the preseason that if Parker became the kind of defender she could be, Tennessee was a different team.
"Tonight was an example; she did tonight," Summitt said. "Let's hope she doesn't lower it. That only raised it."
DEFENSE MATTERS PART II: Pat Summitt used several defensive looks – man to man and a 2-3 matchup zone – against Ole Miss. She put Alexis Hornbuckle and Alberta Auguste at the top of the zone in a particularly effective combination.
"Our wingspan is ridiculous," Auguste said. "On defense me and her are always hungry. We want to get steals, pressure the ball, do anything we can to help stop their offense."
"We're two athletic guards," Hornbuckle said. "We're long. We might not be that tall, but we're long. We make up for a lot of space, and we're very determined at our position. We're all fighting for who can get the most steals or who can get the most deflections and when you have that type of competitiveness it's going to show on the court."
With the guards harassing the Rebels on the perimeter that left the post players room to roam in the back of the zone.
Ole Miss shot 22.9 percent in the first half and 32.3 percent for the game. The Rebels missed their first 10 three-point attempts and were 3-20 from behind the arc (15 percent).
"We just worked hard to contest their shots and not really give them any open looks and always try to have a hand in their face," Sidney Spencer said.
Pat Summitt began emphasizing defense on the first day of practice last October and although Tennessee usually operates out of man to man on defense, the Lady Vols have practiced zone looks throughout the season.
"We know that we disrupt people on the defensive end, and we really improved that from the beginning of the season," Candace Parker said. "Right now I'm happy the way we're playing."
Nicky Anosike added, "Any team is better when all five people are playing defense. She (Parker) was great on both ends of the floor."
DEFENSE MATTERS, PART III: Candace Parker had three blocks, none more inspiring for her team than the one in the open court against Shantell Black.
The Rebel player got loose off a long rebound from a three-point attempt, and Parker took off down court to catch her. Imagine a cat – granted, a really tall one – stalking its prey, moving in sync with the desired object and closing in for the kill.
Parker timed her steps and her leap and sent the shot into the cheerleaders along the baseline.
"I was counting," Parker said with a smile. "I just try to just get back on defense, and I was just trying to match her steps."
That block, plus Parker's other two – one under the basket and another on the wing – set off celebrations on the floor and on the bench.
"We get real hyped," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "You see it. We're running to her, we're congratulating her, but at the same time it just makes us want to elevate our defensive play and our offensive play as well."
DEFENSE MATTERS PART IV: Cait McMahan drew a charge in the first half against Armintie Price by hustling back after Tennessee fumbled a rebound on the offensive end. It was not just a hustle play. It also gave Price her third foul.
"A week ago I got in trouble in practice because I wasn't getting back right, and that's the point guard's job to get back," McMahan said. "I just wanted to get back, and I knew she was right-handed so I played her right and I just kept my feet."
The play happened in front of the Tennessee bench, and the players exploded in celebration for McMahan.
"I heard them, ‘That's three! That's three!' I was like, ‘That is her third foul,' " McMahan said.
The players on the bench wanted to acknowledge McMahan's hustle. Also she is one of the biggest bench cheerleaders when the starters are in the game.
"Cait has always been a player that has brought a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm to our team and she is the first one up on the bench cheering when somebody does something right," said Candace Parker, who was one of the ones cheering the most for McMahan. "I was just really proud that she made a great play and picked up Armintie's third foul, and that was huge for us."
PRESS BREAK: Tennessee broke Ole Miss' full court press with ease – the Rebels called it off in the second half – by getting the ball to the middle of the floor and throwing across the top of the press.
The players and Pat Summitt said that was part of the scouting report. Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scout for this game.
"We want a high post presence, which is obviously the middle of the floor," Summitt said. "We decided that we would put Sidney Spencer in that position. She's got the size where she can throw that pass and get the ball inside. Of course Candace is big target in there and so is Nicky Anosike."
Spencer had four assists in the game and was able to find the open teammate once she got the ball in the middle.
"Just knowing Ole Miss they trap on the sidelines and the baselines so we just wanted to always have someone in the middle to kind of take the pressure off the ball-handler who had the ball on the sideline because there was a trap coming," Spencer said.
It was the guards' job to get the ball to the middle before the trap could be set.
"I thought Alexis and Shannon handled the sideline traps and got the ball in the middle early, which allowed us to have not only some great passing options but also some penetration options," Summitt said. "We only went through that in our scouting report defense on Monday, and they picked up on it. We watched film on what they like to do from a pressing standpoint.
"But I just thought we had great composure in being able to attack and get the ball in the middle. Some of that is their basketball IQ and just making plays. Players have to make plays this time of the year. You can draw up plays, but it comes down to players really being able to create not only for themselves but for their teammates."
Alexis Hornbuckle said the smoothness with which Tennessee handled the press took Ole Miss out of its defensive comfort zone.
"We did sense that they had problems," Hornbuckle said. "We did a great job of moving the ball and hitting the open man. We watched a lot of film on them, especially in the tournament. They're so aggressive in trapping you, but there are a lot of holes, and we just tried to take advantage of that. Every team has a weak spot, and we decided to stick to it and try to kill their weak spot."
Ole Miss' Ashley Awkward agreed.
"They were able to score against our matchup zone and after a while we had to go to man-to-man, which got us out of our comfort level," Awkward said.
Candace Parker also took advantage of the scouting report. She found Hornbuckle behind the press in the first half for an easy bucket. Parker turned up court and pumped her fist after the play.
Having forwards and post players that can handle the ball – Parker, Spencer and Anosike can all pass – made the task that much easier for Tennessee.
"It was huge for us, and I feel like we have five people that are capable of breaking pressure," Parker said. "That's what put pressure on them. We knew their gaps. We watched the scouting reports. Our coaches have done a great job of getting us ready and preparing us for this game."
Shannon Bobbitt also credited the coaching staff with getting her ready for the pressure. She had two assists to only one turnover.
"Thanks to the coaches and the coaching staff, they did a great job on preparing us for a team that presses and running and gunning," Bobbitt said. "I think we stuck to that scouting report and did a great job of it."
AILING GUARD: Alexis Hornbuckle's performance against the pressure was more impressive considering she was ill. Hornbuckle was in some obvious discomfort at times on the floor and didn't warm up in the second half. She opted to rest on the bench.
"I don't what's going on with me, but my stomach was upset," Hornbuckle said. "I didn't feel well. I don't know exactly what it is but hopefully it's a little 24-hour bug. Hopefully by the time I get back to Knoxville I'll be all right."
Hornbuckle had five points and five assists in 21 minutes of play but also picked up four fouls, which is unusual for her because of her quickness on defense. Alberta Auguste, who usually backs up Hornbuckle unless they are on the floor together, played 26 minutes.
ODDS AND ENDS
BEST BACKUP: That provided to Alexis Hornbuckle by Alberta Auguste. Besides taking on more minutes, Auguste also had Hornbuckle's back on the court.
When Hornbuckle broke free on a transition attack, Armintie Price broke with her to the basket.
"I saw Armintie Price come from nowhere and I thought, ‘She's going to try to block Lex's shot,' " Auguste said. "So I ran with Lex and as soon as she went up the ball came back down, and I just caught it and laid it back up."
On the way back down the court Hornbuckle smiled and spoke to Auguste.
"She said, ‘Thanks for putting it back in,' " Auguste said.
Auguste returned the smile and patted her roommate on the head.
BEST SPORTSMANSHIP: That shown by the Tennessee bench, staff and players on the floor when Ole Miss Coach Carol Ross took out senior Armintie Price for the last time in her stellar SEC career.
"We talked about that even before Carol took her out when she started substituting," Pat Summitt said. "The staff said, ‘We've got to stand up for this young lady.' She's one of the best players in the game. Probably hasn't had the amount of attention and recognition that she deserves but clearly if she's not an All-American then something's wrong. In my opinion, she plays both ends of the floor, and they're not in this game if they don't have Armintie Price. I just have great respect for her, our whole team does and our staff."
Cait McMahan was on the court for Tennessee and joined in in the gesture of appreciation.
"I was on the floor. I applauded," McMahan said. "They're underrated. They came in seventh (in seeding). They didn't get enough praise or credit for how good they are. They beat a lot of really good teams. Like Pat said they were a 40-minute team. They had a lot of heart."
Ross appreciated the appreciation for her player.
"Anybody that enjoys women's basketball is going to appreciate Armintie Price and how she plays," Ross said. "I thought it was a class act. I wouldn't call it too unusual, because of the respect that people, especially coaches, you know, coaches would love to coach a player like Armintie Price. She plays so hard and gives so much, so it doesn't surprise me that they would acknowledge her career. It was a very nice gesture."
BEST COMPLETE GAME: The one Tennessee put together Tuesday. In its three previous tourney games the Lady Vols had eased up in the second half and allowed opponents to make runs on them.
Ole Miss had hoped to cut into the halftime deficit, but Tennessee kept pouring in points.
"At halftime we wanted to come out and start to chip away at the lead," Ashley Awkward said. "Every time we scored, Tennessee had an answer. Once they got the lead, they kept attacking us. We did our best tonight, but, our best wasn't good enough."
Cait McMahan said Tennessee still wasn't satisfied.
"We need to work on some things," McMahan said. "We didn't play perfect tonight. That's what we keep reaching for. We need to keep reaching toward being a 40-minute team."
Carol Ross saw plenty from the big orange machine that stopped her team's tourney momentum in its tracks.
"It's been very special, but the little train couldn't get up the mountain and the big train kept motoring up," Ross said. "You have to give Tennessee a ton of credit. They were outstanding. It just seemed like everything we did, they did it better. They had an answer. They were as good as people would expect them to be."
BEST CELEBRATION: That of Sidney Spencer when her friend and four-year roommate Dominique Redding hit a three-pointer in the first half. Redding finished with three points and, more importantly, four rebounds.
Spencer said Redding also has a good feel overall for the game.
"She really understands," Spencer said. "When she threw that ball in to me in the middle she relocated lower than the ball so she was the first person I could see."
Spencer got the ball inside and then kicked it back out to Redding. It was part of Tennessee's ball movement – crisp and quick passes – that kept Ole Miss off balance defensively and prevented reach-in steals.
"It's hard coming off the bench once you've warmed up for the game and then you've gotten cold to come back out and hit that shot," Spencer said. "I definitely commend her for that because I think that's so hard to do so I'm just really proud of her."
When Redding got another board, Alexis Hornbuckle jumped off the bench and yelled, " Way to rebound Dominique!"
Redding smiled as she got back on defense.
BEST HUG: That given to Candace Parker by Dominique Redding, who picked up Parker in the post-game celebration on the court.
"She's really light," Redding said. "It was so easy for me to do. She had a great game tonight. She played really well on the defensive end. I've never seen someone throw shots like that, and that's what we need for us to win."
BEST IN-GAME PLAYER QUOTE: That said by Candace Parker after Alex Fuller uncorked an assortment of post fakes and moves and finished with a turnaround shot in the lane.
"That was nasty!" Parker said.
Fuller laughed when the remark was relayed to her.
"I really don't get points in the paint, but I know how to be a post because that's my natural position," Fuller said. "I was reading my defense or at least trying to do so."
BEST CHEERLEADER: Candace Parker, when Elizabeth Curry checked in in the last minute of the game. Her teammates got her the ball three times, but she wasn't able to score, much to the disappointment of the bench, which cheered her three shot attempts.
BEST SIGN TO SPELL OUT ESPN: Mom send somE cash VolS and Parker ClevelaNd bound.
RUNNER-UP: TENN MATH Summitt Parker = National Champs.
BEST COLLAR POP: That done by Candace Parker, who popped her championship T-shirt when the region's most outstanding player was announced. Parker got a technical foul this season for popping her jersey after a dunk. The crowd roared with approval for this pop.
BEST ENTERTAINER: Shannon Bobbitt, who took the microphone after Pat Summitt addressed the crowd and said: "I would like to thank all my fans." She then laughed and gave it back.
BEST DANCE: The high leg kicks and jumps by Shannon Bobbitt after the all-region team was announced. She actually had no idea that she had been named to the team. Her routine got heavy airplay on ESPN.
"I was just excited," Bobbitt said. "I heard my name, and I just started yelling."
Her teammates laughed and then pulled her back to them for a group photo.
BEST MOTIVATION TO WIN: That provided by Nicky Anosike. Once the season ends the players' conditioning sessions begin with Heather Mason.
"Last year we ended our season earlier than usual," Anosike said. "We have to get back in the gym and do conditioning, and I didn't really feel like seeing Heather."
BEST REMARKS: The players who are newcomers on the team talking about being in a Final Four.
"It feels great," Cait McMahan said. "It's a honor to be on a team and know you're one of the four best teams in the nation."
Alberta Auguste and Shannon Bobbitt were brought to Tennessee specifically because Pat Summitt needed guards after two transferred last season.
"I'm excited to be here," Auguste said. "I'm happy they recruited me. I can't ask for anything else. I'm just happy. I'm ready for the next step now."
"Definitely it feels good," said Bobbitt, who pointed out how they fit in so well with the returning players. "That's just the chemistry of Tennessee. So we're definitely doing a good job, and we're just going to pull it through."
It's special for a senior, too.
"It means a lot, especially not getting there last year," Dominique Redding said. "We're really excited and just can't wait to play."
Pat Summitt was asked about her team's chances in Cleveland.
"It's going to be four great teams in Cleveland; there's no doubt," Summitt said. "I think you're talking four great teams and on a given night I think any team can beat the other team. It's just a matter of we have to be able to control our own destiny and we have to do that through our play.
"As I said it's a battle of wills at times. I do know that this team is very inspired, they're very confident and very focused and if we can build on tonight and continue to play in that fashion then I like our chances. It's not a team that has a lot of limitations as long as we're ready to play and we commit to doing what we have to do to win."
Candace Parker said the Final Four is not enough.
"To be honest with you, we've all put in work in the off-season," Parker said. "We've all been in the gym when there's nobody there. We've all done extra conditioning with Heather, and we're tired of not having anything to show for it. We win the SEC and things like that, but it's just something's missing and that's a national championship. We are just trying to go out there everyday and just leave it out on the floor because the most we can play is two more games."