Lady Vols seek new ending

The Lady Vols have waited a year to get back to where their season ended last March. In fact three of the teams that were in Cleveland for a regional last year, Tennessee, Rutgers and North Carolina, made it back to the city for the 2007 Women's Final Four.

Any notion of such symmetry wasn't on the minds of the Tennessee players three weeks ago when the brackets were announced. When it was pointed out that they were beginning a quest to get back to the site of where their season had ended, Nicky Anosike flashed an amused smile.

"I remember. I was there," Anosike said while Candace Parker pulled a couch pillow up to her face and burst out laughing. "I haven't really thought about it. I don't care where the Final Four is. If we can get there then I'll be happy."

Tennessee did get there. The Lady Vols did it by delivering a beat down of conference foe Ole Miss, 98-62, in the Dayton Region final on Tuesday in a game in which Pat Summitt tried not to run up the score. The players took off Wednesday to catch up academically – they had been in Ohio since last Friday evening – and will return to the practice court in Knoxville on Thursday. The team will leave Knoxville later Thursday evening for a trip back to Ohio.

"We've been on the court where the Final Four is," Parker said by way of noting any parallels to last season. "Last year leaving the court there was a bitter taste hearing them celebrating. Wherever we are placed we want to get to the Final Four."

The "them" in this case was North Carolina, which beat Tennessee a year ago for the right to go to the Final Four in Boston. As it turns out that is also who Tennessee will face Sunday in the semifinal game at Quicken Loans Arena. Rutgers and LSU meet in the first semifinal at 7 p.m., and Tennessee's game will tip off 30 minutes after that one ends. The winners play Tuesday for a national championship.

This is a much different Tennessee team headed to Cleveland than last time. Alexis Hornbuckle isn't wearing a splint to protect a wrist that was still healing from a fracture. Newcomers Shannon Bobbitt, Cait McMahan and Alberta Auguste provide help at the guard position with Bobbitt taking the role of starting point guard.

"We're going in healthy, but also we're going in with a lot more experience," said Parker, a sophomore and First Team All-American this season. "We've tasted defeat, and we know what it's like to lose, and we don't want that to happen anymore."

Parker said those words three weeks ago at Summitt's house after the brackets were announced. Since then Tennessee has not lost. When the brackets were unveiled the Dayton Region was tagged the one of doom. Defending champion Maryland was the two seed, with Oklahoma the three seed.

Tennessee was the top seed and would likely have to beat a resurgent Pitt team on its home floor (the Lady Vols did) and then face what was expected to be Middle Tennessee (five seed) or Ohio State (four seed) in its home state in a regional semifinal. Then Marist, a 13 seed, and Ole Miss, a seven seed, crashed the region and suddenly the path opened up for Tennessee with some unlikely opponents.

When Summitt was asked during her NCAA media teleconference if she was surprised by how the bracket broke, and in a way that made it easier for Tennessee, she said, "Absolutely."

"It's been a different road than we had anticipated," Summitt said. "But you look at Old Miss' play, and particularly their play against Maryland and Oklahoma, I just felt like that was going to be a real challenge for us.

"Sometimes for me it's more favorable not to play an SEC school. Certainly we are both familiar with each other, but watching them, I just felt like they were a very hot team at the time. And offensively they were doing a good job. Defensively they were creating a lot of scoring opportunities off their defense and turning people over. Yet (Tuesday) night, I just felt like that our basketball team from a defensive standpoint went out and did exactly what they needed to do, and our offensive execution was really sharp in handling their different defensive schemes, their zone and their man and their trap.

"It was a different road and a different path than I ever anticipated. Hopefully that won't hurt us and maybe even help us as we go to this Final Four and get ready to face a great North Carolina team."

Summitt and Tar Heel Coach Sylvia Hatchell each took questions for the allotted 30 minutes on Wednesday afternoon with Hatchell going first. When it was announced that her time period was up Hatchell, knowing the media would remain on the line for Summitt, said, "Do me a favor, tell Pat it's an honor to play her, and congratulations."

Hatchell almost got done early when it didn't seem like there were questioners queued up, but the request line suddenly got full, and the first question was about Parker taking over games in the tourney.

"When she (the teleconference moderator) said no more questions, I was saying to myself, "I can't believe no one is asking me about Candace Parker, I just can't believe that.

"I agree with you. Candace got my vote for Player of the Year. She's having a tremendous year. She is a great player. She is so versatile. She can play outside; she can play inside; she can just do so much for that team. … But I think right now, Tennessee, their whole team is playing well together. They just walked right through the Dayton Region. They have not even had a close game. But Candace, I agree with you, she's playing phenomenal."

When another writer pointed out that Parker had eight turnovers in the matchup in Cleveland a year ago and wondered if North Carolina would try to exploit that, Hatchell said she was open to any ideas.

"Well, if you have any suggestions, I'll take them," Hatchell said. "I tell you what, Candace is playing so well right now, I think you've got to try to throw a lot of different things at her as far as maybe looks, combinations, people, sets. I think you've just got to throw a lot of different things at Candace because you know, she's such an intelligent player and she's so skilled.

"But like I said, if you've got any suggestions, I'll give you my cell phone."

When the two teams played earlier this season on Dec. 3, a 70-57 win Chapel Hill, Parker had 27 points and 10 rebounds, but Hornbuckle and Sidney Spencer struggled offensively and the Tar Heels won by getting on the glass and getting transition baskets.

"Well, obviously I think we learned a tremendous amount from our game at North Carolina," Summitt said. "It taught us a lot about what we needed to improve upon in, particular, I thought that on the offensive end, we didn't execute very well. They had an awful lot to do with it.

"Certainly we learned a lot about the importance of transition defense. I remember after the game, I just basically took responsibilities for what had happened because of our lack of commitment to defending the ball in the full court.

"Offensively, we weren't ready. They were just so much better than us. It remains to be seen how much we have improved. But I do think the schedule we've played and having played North Carolina earlier in the season, I'm glad that we've at least had a game so we understand just how good they are."

When the Lady Vols prepared to assemble for practice the day after that game, Summitt instead called it off and had her players sit down in one-on-one and position group film sessions with the coaches. The intent was to teach instead of tear apart. The players later spoke of how much that approach helped them instead of a scorched earth practice session.

Four months later the teams will meet again with the winner getting a shot in the final game of the season for a national title. The significance of getting back to Cleveland after losing there last season wasn't something the players thought about three weeks ago.

"Never really thought about it," Hornbuckle said. "Despite where our season ended last year, you want to get to the Final Four. It just so happened that our season ended in Cleveland, and we could possibly end up there again."

"I really hadn't thought about it," Spencer said. "I would love to get back to Cleveland. I think maybe there's some unfinished business needs to go on there but definitely would love to go back there. They have some really good food. It would be great competition."

Spencer did give a nod to Tennessee's schedule as the perfect preparation for the postseason in her opinion.

"I think that's why we play top strength of schedule every year," Spencer said. "That's why our schedule is so difficult in the regular season to prepare us for something like this. I don't think there's any easy way to a Final Four and why not use the opportunity to prove ourselves. That's the way I look at it."

At the time the Lady Vols were beginning a journey that would take them through Pittsburgh and Dayton. They knew of only one foe, Drake, and would play the games one at a time, a mantra they have repeated all month. Anosike knew one thing for sure. The orange-clad fans would show up no matter what.

"I think if they sent us anywhere in America our fans would come and travel with us," Anosike said. "It's a tribute to the program and the fans. They have some real support for us."

ALL-AMERICAN: Candace Parker has been named an Associated Press First Team All-American. This is her second AP award as she was a Second Team recipient as a freshman. She is Tennessee's first First Team selection since Tamika Catchings was honored for such in 2000.

"It's a huge honor," Parker said. "I wouldn't be where I am right now without my tremendous teammates."

Parker was picked on 49 of the 50 ballots from the national media panel that votes in the weekly Top 25, receiving 248 points. The voting was done before the start of the NCAA Tournament.

Parker averaged 19.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocked shots per contest. Since the NCAA Tournament started the Naperville, Ill., native has shot 74 percent from the field and averaged 20.8 points and 10.3 boards per outing and carried the Lady Vols into their 17th NCAA Final Four.

Other First Team selections are: Courtney Paris of Oklahoma (46 first-team votes; 242 points); Duke's Lindsey Harding (44; 234); North Carolina's Ivory Latta (38; 218); and Ohio State's Jessica Davenport (20; 188).

Second Team members were Crystal Langhorne (Maryland); Candice Wiggins (Stanford); Sylvia Fowles (LSU); Chrissy Givens (Middle Tennessee); and Angel McCoughtry ( Louisville ). The Third Team consisted of Purdue's Katie Gearlds, UNC's Erlana Larkins, Duke's Alison Bales, Ole Miss' Armintie Price and Georgia's Tasha Humphrey.

Ole Miss Coach Carol Ross had high praise for Parker in Dayton.

"The great thing about our league is that great players come through our league so often," Ross said. "Even though I have been in the league a long time, the greatness that is walking through our league right now is Candace Parker.

"She's not what everybody in the SEC is only talking about it's what everybody in the country is taking about. Certainly, our players are aware of her persona, her swagger and her ability."

During a press conference in Dayton, Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt were asked to talk about playing with Parker, who was sitting beside them.

"It's an honor to play with just a versatile player like Candace Parker," Hornbuckle said. "She is well known, but she also lives up to the hype on both ends of the court. She does a lot in crucial situations."

"Candace is a great player," Bobbitt said. "She takes a lot of pressure off me at the point guard position. That is a hard position to play, and I enjoy playing with her, and she has done a good job for us this year."

Parker then leaned forward to speak into her microphone, smiled and said, "Thanks Lex and Shannon."

It is that humbleness that Pat Summitt has cited all season. Parker lets loose with some swagger, some stares and sometimes some words on the court, but once the game is over she only wants to talk about her teammates.

"Candace Parker has been a real joy to coach," Summitt said. "She just loves the game and she is a self-starter. She wants to get in the gym and work in the off-season. She does a lot of things when no one is watching. What you see now is a player with great versatility.

"Obviously we allow her to play multiple positions. We have an offensive package for Candace because if people are going to double and triple team her on the block it's still important that she get touches. She does a great job of handling the physical play, has a lot of composure, but she's one of the first to hit an open teammate. … Right now I think Candace is very focused. She wants to win a national championship, this team wants to win one, this coaching staff wants to win one."

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