The pursuit of that bigger goal – a national championship – begins Sunday night when Tennessee, 32-3, squares off against North Carolina, 34-3, in a clash of two number one seeds in the second semifinal at Quicken Loans Arena at approximately 9:30 p.m. Eastern time (ESPN, Lady Vols Radio Network). LSU, 30-7, and Rutgers, 26-8, play in the first semifinal at the 2007 Women's Final Four at 7 p.m. The winners meet Tuesday for the title.
The UT-UNC game is a rematch, not just from this season – a 70-57 Tar Heel win on Dec. 3 – but from last season at the Cleveland regional when the two teams met in the final for the right to go to the Final Four. Same arena, same court and for both teams, same locker rooms.
Whether that was coincidence or planned the Tennessee team found it interesting and the North Carolina team didn't pay attention to it. It appears to be the elusive search for an edge – the Lady Vols speak of redemption, the Tar Heels say the past is done.
"I think it was meant to be," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I think we were meant to be in this locker room back in this building playing against North Carolina. I'm excited about it."
Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (8.7 points per game season/11.5 ppg NCAA tourney, 1.5 rebounds per game season/2.3 rpg tourney, 2.7 assists per game season/2.5 apg tourney; Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.4/8.0 ppg, 5.0/3.8 rpg, 4.1/4.0 apg, 3.0/1.2 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (11.8/13.0 ppg, 4.3/3.8 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.9/20.8 ppg, 20.8/10.3 rpg, 2.8/2.5 blocks per game; and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (7.4/8.5 ppg, 5.9/7.3 rpg).
North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell is expected to start: Ivory Latta, 5'6 senior guard, No. 12 (16.3 ppg season/15.0 ppg tourney, 2.1 rpg season/2.0 tourney, 4.3 apg season/2.7 apg tourney); Camille Little, 6'2 senior forward/guard, No. 20 (13.9/10.5 ppg, 6.0/4.3 rpg, 2.6/3.0 steals per game); Rashanda McCants, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 32 (9.3/10.5 ppg, 4.1/4.3 rpg); Erlana Larkins, 6'1 junior forward, No. 2 (13.1/14.3 ppg, 9.4/7.5 rpg); and LaToya Pringle, 6'3 junior forward/center, No. 30 (9.9/9.8 ppg, 7.5/10.3 rpg, 3.2/3.2 blocks per game).
It's been nearly four months since the two teams last played each other.
"It's been awhile," Hatchell said. "We have both played a lot of games since then. I don't think you can look back at previous games really, especially when it's been so long since you played another team. But when we played in December I know both teams played great defense. I thought it was a little bit of a sloppy game. … I think both teams are better now. I think that probably both teams know their roles a little better than back in the early December time."
Hatchell felt like her team hadn't yet played its best until the postseason started at the ACC Tournament.
"We just had to keep pushing buttons, and we could elevate to a higher level for tournament time," Hatchell said.
Since that game in December, Tennessee feels like it quit watching Parker perform, and the team got in sync offensively and defensively.
"My teammates make it real easy for me," Parker said. "You can't forget about them. I like to say pick your poison because if they try to take one thing away or they try to double, my teammates will definitely capitalize on that."
"Defense wins games, and I think we really learned that this season where last year it took us a whole season, it took our season to end for us to really realize that, and we didn't want it to get to that point," Anosike said.
Summitt said the past two games provided game film of what to expect Sunday in some regards.
"I think the last two games definitely gave us a lot of information on North Carolina," Summitt said. "They know us; we know them. We haven't been able to beat them in the last two games so we've got to be better now."
Both sides cited defense and rebounding as the two keys of the game. North Carolina prevailed on the boards in the last game, 43-33.
"We rebounded well," Larkins said of the earlier matchup between the two teams. "If you don't rebound how do you score or if you don't rebound how do you keep the other person from scoring? Rebounding in this game is really important."
An equally determined rebounder is Tennessee forward Alex Fuller, who is averaging 4.5 boards per game in the postseason off the bench and who could conduct how-to clinics on positioning.
"Before you can rebound you have to box out," Fuller said. "That's going to be the main thing first to box out, and then the rebounds will come."
The two teams' locker rooms are just down the hall from each other. The North Carolina players are taking the approach that the room doesn't matter.
"I didn't even notice," Larkins said. "We know we played Tennessee last year and in the regional finals in the same gym, but I would have never thought same locker room and things like that."
"It's a whole different year, whole new team," Latta said. "Both teams have different concepts. It's a new year, new teams, just go out there and have fun."
Perhaps it sticks in Tennessee's mind because it's the place where the season ended, and the players don't want to feel that way again.
"It's kind of ironic that the place we lost last year is the place that we're going to be playing for a national championship this year," Fuller said. "It's very important that we redeem ourselves from last year and from the beginning of the season when we lost to North Carolina."
Bobbitt and Auguste were brought in from the juco ranks to address Tennessee's guard depth issues and McMahan, a true freshman, backs up Bobbitt at the point.
"Everything happens for a reason," Bobbitt said of her being on the team and the team being back in Cleveland. "We definitely going to play hard and leave everything out on the hardwood. I'm going to do whatever it takes to win."
"Whatever it takes for me to help them I will do it," Auguste said. "Coming off the bench with a lot of energy, pressure defense and just pick up the momentum when I get out there."
McMahan, Bobbitt, Auguste and manager-turned-walk-on Elizabeth Curry are experiencing the Final Four for the first time in Tennessee uniforms.
"It's exciting," McMahan said. "I didn't know all this happened. It's a lot of fun."
"All this" is the Friday evening team banquet, the championship ring sizing for all four teams, the crush of media in the locker room well in advance of the game, an autograph session and hundreds of fans at the open practice. It's also something the players have to accommodate and then recalibrate.
"This team has done great with handling a variety of different distractions," Parker said. "That's how we get past it. When it's done it's done."
Parker had the biggest sideshow from the actual game. A standing-room-only crowd packed a meeting room at the downtown Marriott to watch her not only be selected as a Kodak/WBCA All-American but to also win the Wade Trophy Player of the Year Award, which is recognized as the sport's most prestigious POY nod and was called the Heisman of women's basketball.
After two days of banquets, awards, media and locker room karma or curse questions, the team was ready for some time to itself.
"I'm glad that is over so we can focus on the game," Fuller said. "We just try to stay humble. We know Candace won the Wade Trophy. We all congratulated her. We all gave her her kudos this morning so now it's time to focus team-wise on what we're trying to do, which is win a national championship."
"That's the purpose of being here," Hornbuckle said. "For Candace's award that's great for Candace, but her mindset is on being a team player still and getting the job done and completing our task. So it's like you're here for a reason, you know the reason, you know the job's that at hand, and you just have to concentrate on that."
"I think we just want it, and when you want it you're going to be willing to focus in," Anosike said. "I think there are a lot of distractions with my family being here and the media being here way before the game even starts. That can all be distracting, but I think we have a bigger goal at hand that we need to focus in on."
Anosike's family, who lives in New Jersey, rarely gets to see her play. It will be special for Anosike to have them here, especially her mother, Ngozi Anosike.
"She's my world," Nicky Anosike said. "She's why I'm here. She's why I'm who I am right now. I try to model myself after her as much as I can."
Her mother must have taught her to focus and always speak the truth.
"It definitely means a lot that they're going to come out here and watch me, but I have bigger fish to fry," said Anosike, who noted her family is "hard-working." "That's nice that they're coming, but I really want to win."
Anosike likes this team's chances against North Carolina in this setting a lot better because she senses a unity of purpose.
"We have to play Tennessee basketball," Anosike said. "Tennessee is known for winning championships, and we have to get it done and we have to do it by playing together. We need each and every single person on this team. Last year we weren't really a team. We were a bunch of people with the same jerseys on. This year I can honestly say we're really a team, and we play together."
Bobbitt can even break down a difference from the current team since December when the season was still quite young.
"I think we trust each other a little bit more," Bobbitt said. "We definitely communicate a little better so that's going to help a lot."
As far as her play Bobbitt sees herself as "definitely just being a little bit more aggressive and knowing who to get the ball to at the right time and running the offense quicker."
For the seniors this stage is the last shot in their collegiate careers.
"Gotta go out with a bang," senior Dominique Redding said. "As a freshman it was just something we expected to get to the Final Four and last year not going to the Final Four was a shocker so this year we had to work hard and try to get back to this place."
That message has trickled down from veteran to newcomer.
"Everybody on this team knows what we're here for," Bobbitt said. "We're definitely looking forward to Sunday night's game."
Spencer expects a showcase for women's basketball.
"There are so many great players that are going to step on that court on Sunday night," Spencer said. "With North Carolina they've got a great starting five and a great bench, and we've got the same. I just think for women's basketball this shows a lot of the top talent. It's going to be a great showcase."
Does the semifinal have a title game feel?
"I don't know. I haven't been there in awhile," said Spencer, who like Redding, made the title game in 2004 as a freshman but hasn't been back to that point since. "Two number one seeds. I definitely think that it's going to be fun, it's going to be exciting, very up and down. They're going to be doing the detail things, we're going to be trying to do the detail things like rebounding and transition defense. It's going to be a battle."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-North Carolina game. Here is her assessment.
When North Carolina has the ball: "Obviously they've got a great point guard with Latta so you've got to make sure that we're containing her, limiting her touches. We want to make sure that we're disrupting her defensively. The other area that they're strong in is with Larkins. I think that she gives them such a great dominant force on the low block. We're going to have to keep her off the offensive glass as well, because she's not only a great scorer from the low block but she's also a great rebounder on the offensive end.
"And then Camille Little. I think Camille Little has done a great job for them as well. So just making sure we're trying to disrupt them with our man-to-man defense, mixing up our defense, having great defensive pressure on the ball at all times and then finishing off our defense with a box out."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We want to establish our running game first and foremost and also attack and get paint points early. We want to establish that inside-outside attack. I think that's been key for us throughout the entire tournament. Obviously when you get Candace Parker easy touches and good looks that kind of makes your offense flow a little bit easier and a little bit better. I think with the action that we run we'll do a good job of getting her some early touches and some early looks."
Caldwell is happy to be back in Cleveland, along with two of the teams that were there with the Lady Vols last year at the regional in North Carolina and Rutgers.
"It's always a great feeling to get to the Final Four," Caldwell said. "It's something all 64 teams were gunning for and then you've got four standing at the end. It's a game and you take them one game at a time. I think the main thing that we try to do and instill in our players is that it is just that. It's one game at a time. Yes, if you lose you go home, but you don't really look at it that way. You look at it as you keep on advancing for more opportunities, and that's what they've done.
"They've looked at it as an opportunity to continue to play and to continue to stretch their season out. Obviously we've played North Carolina and we've played LSU this year so we're very familiar with them. Very familiar with Rutgers who we've played in the past as well. So there's a familiarity going into this game and going into this tournament where we feel good about whoever we may face. I think all in all our kids are excited to be here, we're excited to be here, and it's going to be a very good Final Four as far as the pace of the game because you've got four explosive teams in the open floor so I think that's going to be fun to watch."
The Final Four also features the tourney's top defensive teams. LSU and Rutgers were one and two in scoring defense at 43.8 and 47.0 points allowed per game, respectively. Tennessee was No. 4 at 49.8 and North Carolina was No. 8 at 54.2. (Duke, which lost to Rutgers, was No. 3 at 49.7 points allowed per game.)
"I think each coach has instilled in their team that defense and board play win games and championships," Caldwell said. "It is going to be a battle of the boards, it's going to be a battle of who's going to come up with the hustle plays, who's also going to execute their offense against the type of pressure that North Carolina applies and then LSU on the other side with Rutgers. Those two both go at it defensively as well."
LSU-RUTGERS: The Tigers of LSU, 30-7, and the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers, 26-8, will play in the first semifinal game. Rutgers, a four seed, won the Greensboro Regional and upset No. 1 overall seed Duke along the way. LSU, a No. 3 seed, took out UConn in the Fresno Regional.
LSU enters the Final Four with an interim coach in Bob Starkey, who replaced Pokey Chatman, who resigned after the SEC Tournament amid allegations of inappropriate conduct with a former player.
Rutgers comes into the premier event in women's basketball fresh off the Big East tourney title and a complete turnaround from earlier in the season during which Coach C. Vivian Stringer threw her team out of its locker room, took away practice gear and any item that had ‘Rutgers' on it and told her assistants to go find some players for the next season that would compete.
Rutgers is led by two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman in the starting lineup. LSU starts five juniors. Regardless of what happens Sunday the future looks bright at both schools.
That is particularly noteworthy at LSU, which was reeling less than a month ago when Chatman abruptly left her position. Starkey took over the team and has impressed considerably.
"Not only is he a good basketball person but just the things he's done with this team to keep them focused," North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell said. "I've had a few conversations with him the last couple of days, and I'm extremely impressed. … I just can't believe he doesn't want to be the head coach there. If I was one of the people doing the hiring I would do everything I could to try to get him to take that job, because he's done a tremendous job."
Starkey has said he has no interest in the top spot.
LSU guard Erica White said Starkey, a longtime assistant at LSU, hasn't changed. He's just doing different things now.
"Standing out in front of the program and speaking to the media more," White said. "But as far as basketball goes he's pretty much the same guy. I think he's been sensitive to the situation, and he's done a great job and given the team the things that we need. A lot of positive feedback and taking good care of us. So he's doing a great job."
Keeping the focus on a basketball routine has been key, Starkey said. LSU is making its fourth straight appearance at the Final Four.
"The tournament has been exciting, and it's been hectic," Starkey said. "But it's always been like that. You travel, you play, you come home. You travel, you play, you come home. And that's been a good thing for me, and it's been a good thing for the team. … We were playing good basketball before the things that unfolded after the SEC Tournament, so it wasn't like we had to reinvent the wheel or do anything new. It's just to make sure that the kids still understood what their goals were and fortunately and obviously that's what they did."
The game will feature a center matchup between rising star Kia Vaughn and established star Sylvia Fowles, who has been on a tear in the NCAA tourney and has averaged 18 points and 11.8 boards in LSU's wins over UNC-Asheville, West Virginia, Florida State and Connecticut. Vaughn checks in with 12.8 points and 8.3 boards in wins over East Carolina, Michigan State, Duke and Arizona State.
"Most definitely I think Kia Vaughn will be a challenge," Fowles said. "She puts the ball on the floor very well, and she can also get out and run. She can step away from the paint and she can rebound. It's going to be very competitive."
Stringer was asked how Rutgers intended to guard Fowles, who has developed a hook shot that she can hit left- or right-handed. With Fowles measuring 6'6, a hook shot is not defensible.
"We have to try to figure out how she can't come out of the locker room," Stringer joked. "To tell you the truth they should watch her food and make sure she doesn't get sick. I don't know what we're going to do yet. She's one of the few players that she will change your scheme. You can't be business as usual with her. Because she's not a usual player. … It's just this one-woman wrecking crew. I think she could play on the vast majority of Division I men's basketball programs. She's very good. And I just want to give her nothing but compliments."
Joining Fowles in double figures in the tourney for LSU is Quianna Chaney at 14.0 ppg. Chaney has hit 13-26 from behind the arc (50 percent). Freshman Allison Hightower has hit 4-6 (66.7 percent) from three-point range off the bench.
Still both teams pride themselves on defense and lead the tournament in fewest points allowed – 43.8 for LSU and 47.0 for Rutgers.
"I think the biggest thing that I see is both teams enjoy playing defense," Starkey said. "And that sometimes can be rare. If you watch their kids play they get excited about it. And I feel like our kids do, too. I think both teams have the athleticism to do a variety of things. Theirs is a little bit more full court where ours is a little bit more half court."
WADE WINNER: Saturday began with Candace Parker and nine other players on a stage in a meeting room at the Marriott for the introduction of the Kodak/WBCA All-American Basketball Team.
"You've got to love it – standing room only," said Beth Bass, chief executive officer of the Women's Basketball Coaching Association.
Joining Parker on the team were Jessica Davenport, senior center, Ohio State; Sylvia Fowles, junior center, LSU; Lindsey Harding, senior guard, Duke; Crystal Langhorne, junior center, Maryland; Ivory Latta, senior guard, North Carolina; Angel McCoughtry, sophomore forward, Louisville; Courtney Paris, sophomore center, Oklahoma; Armintie Price, senior guard, Ole Miss; and Candice Wiggins, junior guard, Stanford.
After each player, wearing special Nike warmups and shoes with their school jerseys underneath, was individually recognized, the Wade Trophy winner was announced.
Parker seemed completely surprised that it was her name that was called.
Tennessee's coaching staff leaped up to give Parker a standing ovation with Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell leading the cheers.
"Definitely a surprise," Caldwell said. "We had no idea. We are very glad that she received that award. She deserves it. When you look at the conference that we play in, who Candace has to go up against every game, the opponents and their game plan against us, she's faced double teams, triple teams, but she's always been able to prevail. We've asked a lot of Candace, and I think she's answered the call and just being a sophomore."
Parker is the first sophomore to ever win the award in its 33-year history. She is only the second Lady Vol to take the trophy home. The other was Daedra "Night Train" Charles, who won in 1991.
"You've got a player who won the Wade Trophy award who can play one through five," who was designated on the award list as a forward, center and guard," Caldwell said. "If we need her at the point guard we'll do that. If we need her at the five we'll do that. So the versatility of Candace is what makes her so special."
Parker also is quick on her feet off the court. A host of speakers had been to the podium and awkwardly leaned forward to reach the microphone. Parker lifted it from the holder and spoke standing straight up – ESPN's Trey Wingo thanked her for the tip when he returned to the podium – to the packed room.
"I'm going to keep it brief because I'm a little nervous," Parker said before she charmed the crowd with her impromptu speech.
She thanked her teammates and her coaching staff, especially for "sometimes telling me the things I don't want to hear, but I need to."
Parker saluted the collegiate players on the stage with her for the present, the WBCA High School All-Americans who were in attendance and would be playing later that day for the future and teased ESPN's Stacey Dales that she was the past. Dales, who played at Oklahoma and will play in the WNBA this season for the Chicago Sky, laughed the loudest.
Earlier, Dales had asked the seniors on the All-American squad to "go easy" on her when they reached the WNBA, and she reminded Price that she doesn't "need for you to take the ball from me."
Parker then brought up the Marist game in which her defense, or lack thereof, elicited the wrath and infamous stare of Pat Summitt.
"It's well worth it," Parker said of the effect it has on a player's performance.
Afterwards, Parker posed for photographs with the Wade Trophy and then spoke with the media about being surprised. Parker was a Kodak All-American last year so she was on the stage when Seimone Auguste won the Wade Trophy for the second year in a row.
"I really had no idea," Parker said. "I remember last year Seimone had a speech prepared so I thought that somebody knew that they had won. I had no idea. I really didn't. I was like I wonder who's hiding it. I'm looking around. I remember she had a speech that she pulled out. Maybe that's because she won it the year before. They didn't tell me anything."
The Tennessee coaching staff shared her surprise and the staff and Lady Vol contingent rose nearly in unison when Parker's name was announced to cheer and whoop. Parker smiled but otherwise kept her composure.
"I think she knew there were a lot of other players that had great years," Summitt said. "I think she keeps everything in perspective. She's very humble, and I think she's also very excited that she was selected. I was excited.
"I thought it had to come down to Candace Parker and Lindsey Harding. I thought those two players had the biggest impact on their programs this year. Candace's play has been so dominant. She's brought a lot of excitement to the women's game because of the things that she can do both inside, outside, the defensive presence she's had. She's been terrific in imposing her will with her defense. She's elevated in her game. You have to give her a lot of credit. She's been in the gym. She's dedicated time to the fundamentals of the game. She's worked a lot on her offensive skills. That just doesn't happen. You have to be repetitive in your work, and she's been willing to work really hard and refine her skills."
Parker was surrounded by media after the event and fielded questions about winning as a Lady Vol to the history of the sport to whether or not she was coming back next season.
"It's a very special feeling," Parker said. "I've talked about the history of our program and how much we've done in the 33 years that Coach Summitt has been there. It's a blessing standing up here today. I want my legacy to be that we win championships when I'm here. Obviously that hasn't been accomplished yet, but we're putting ourselves in position to do that.
"Coach Summitt she stated earlier that she really doesn't feel like the people of our generation know a lot about what it has taken women's basketball to get to the point that it is right now. I feel like maybe she's right."
Parker said she did some research about Title IX, the conditions that led to it and the antiquated rules of basketball that some states played not so long ago.
"It's amazing that she's been a part of this whole growth and I think that without her basketball wouldn't be where it is right now," Parker said. "It increases our appreciation, and it also increases the responsibility because I owe it to the high school All-Americans and our class is capable of growing the game even more. Now you walk outside, and you see little boys in your jerseys. It's exciting."
Inevitably the issue of Parker leaping to the WNBA was raised. Parker has said she is returning to Tennessee next season, and she repeated that Saturday.
"I've said that numerous times, and it keeps coming up," Parker said. "I feel like at this stage in my life that's the best thing."
When Parker posed for the photos with the trophy she kept off her warmup jacket and had the pictures taken with her Tennessee jersey showing.
"I always wear orange with pride, and I always will," Parker said.
"FATHER OF THE WBCA": The Kodak/WBCA All-American Team will change corporate sponsors next season to State Farm. Hunter Low, who spearheaded Kodak's involvement in the team and the coaches' association, spoke to the assembled group after the award ceremony.
WBCA CEO Beth Bass thanked Low, who was a manager at Eastman Kodak and essentially created the prestigious team, " for your support when no one else believed in us."
Bass said the axiom is "change is good," but the next line should be "you go first."
Next year the team will be called the State Farm Coaches' All-America Team.
"We are proud to carry on the legendary tradition with our new title sponsor, State Farm Insurance," Bass said.
But before Kodak bowed out, Low, who managed the Kodak All-America program from 1975 to 1991, accepted the WBCA's invitation to say good-bye. He remembered when the event was covered by a total of five journalists – the back of the room was filled Saturday with print and broadcast media from all over the country – and noted that four remained in the business and one got out and went into legitimate work, a line that drew much laughter from everyone.
He noted that every recipient of the awards and All-American recognition had shown up to receive the honors. Low was especially proud that Kodak got involved with women's sports without being a manufacture of sporting goods but merely wanted to promote the game.
When he finished his speech, Summitt got up to lead the standing ovation for Low. She first met Low in 1975 when he arranged an international basketball game between the U.S. Olympic Team and the People's Republic of China Olympic Team in Rochester, N.Y. He also made arrangements for the Olympic team, of which Summitt was a member, to train in Rochester prior to the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal.
"I was in the first meeting when we talked with Hunter about Kodak being a sponsor," Summitt said. "That was in Syracuse back in '75. I knew Hunter from that point on. He housed us in Rochester before we went to Hamilton (Ontario) for the Olympic qualifier. He just became a great fan of the women's game. He's been a difference-maker in this game. A lot of people don't know that history. I'm fortunate enough that I was in the mix as a player to be around him and from that point as a coach."
TITLE OR NOTHING?: LSU is making its fourth straight trip to the Final Four and hopes this one leads to the title game and a national championship. C. Vivian Stringer has taken three teams – Cheney, Iowa and Rutgers – but is still seeking her first title. Sylvia Hatchell got North Carolina to the Final Four last season for the first time since her program won the national title in 1994. Tennessee hasn't won a title since 1998 and missed the Final Four last season after going for three straight years. LSU joined an exclusive club with its fourth consecutive trip, joining Tennessee, Louisiana Tech and UConn.
All four of these teams want a national title.
"It's definitely a sense of urgency for me since this is my last year," UNC's Ivory Latta said. "I'm just going to lay everything out there on the line. Any game now could be my last game, and I'm just trying to go out there and just keep my focus, keep my team up and make sure everybody's loose and just go out there and have fun."
When Stringer was asked if a title would complete her resume she said, "Yeah, how could it not? It's something that we all pursue. … But who wouldn't – I just want to know what it feels like. … I'll always pursue excellence. And excellence is a national championship. So I'll pursue it."
Stringer got some endorsement from Pat Summitt, who made the case that greatness isn't always measured by titles.
"Would that obviously be an exclamation point on her career?" Summitt asked. "Yes. But she's a great coach regardless of whether or not that happens. … Vivian is a legit leader and great coach in this game. Regardless of whether or not she ever cuts down the nets. But that lady's probably going to cut down some nets."
LSU's Bob Starkey noted that in LSU's three previous semifinals the Tigers got beat on a last-second basket by Tennessee, they jumped out to a big lead on Baylor and lost momentum and then didn't play well against Duke.
"We feel like we're playing better right now," Starkey said. "And I think that helps. Does it get us over the hump? I don't know. When you get this far in the season and you play the people that you play, you can play well and still go home."
Candace Parker has made no secret of her desire. She wants a national title. It's why she came to Tennessee.
"I get goose bumps thinking about it," Parker said. "Just winning the national championship I can't even put into words what that would mean."
Parker was standing beside the Wade Trophy as she spoke. Her Tennessee jersey had a special Final Four patch on the left side. It's her first patch as a player. She had one on her jersey in Indianapolis in 2005, but she was taking a redshirt year because of knee rehab.
"I remember my freshman year I was warming up and I was just so excited to be able to do a layup on the floor," Parker said. This time I'm actually able to play, and I can't wait."
Summitt doesn't think Parker has to win a title to establish that she is one of the best all-time players in women's basketball history, but she knows how Parker feels.
"I wouldn't say that she has to do that to really establish who she is, but I think it speaks to Candace's competitive drive," Summitt said. "She wants to win a championship, and she feels like to be considered along with the names of Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings that's what she needs to do. I like the fact that she feels like she needs to do it. Maybe she'll do it. I hope so."
Summitt saw a difference last fall when Parker returned to campus after playing with the USA Senior National Team in Brazil.
"Having a chance to play with the world championship team I think that made a big difference for her and that really set the bar a little bit higher," Summitt said. "Tina Thompson, she spoke a lot about her showing her the ropes. Tamika Catchings, she always shows you the example of how hard you can play this game. You may think you're playing hard but when you watch her you know you've got room to grow."
Parker has no doubt what she wants. She would walk away from the Wade Trophy and any other honors for a banner to hang in Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Once that's done you are champions," Parker said. "They can take the individual awards away and say this belongs to this player or it's political. But a national championship you can't take that away. You can't take a banner away.
"I can only imagine what a national championship would feel like."
She and several others in Cleveland, including her teammate Alexis Hornbuckle. The junior has often heard the word "drought" to describe Tennessee's lack of titles since 1998, the year the program won its sixth.
"You kind of get tired of hearing it but at the same time repetition is always good," Hornbuckle said. "I came to Tennessee to win a national championship and I have yet to do so in three years and in Sid and Dom's case in four years. That's great motivation every year. You might get frustrated if you come up short like, ‘I don't want to hear that,' but it's put you back in perspective of the reason why you came to Tennessee."
TENNESSEE BOUND: Three players who will be Lady Vols next fall played Saturday evening at Cleveland State in the WBCA High School All-America Game: Vicki Baugh, a 6'4 forward from Sacramento, Calif.; Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 guard from Spokane, Wash.; and Kelley Cain, a 6'6 center from Atlanta, Ga.
The three played together on the White Team, which lost, 98-95, to the Red Team. Baugh had seven points and 10 rebounds, Bjorklund had 11 points and seven boards, and Cain had five points and 10 rebounds. Pat Summitt and her staff were watching from the wooden bleachers at Woodling Gym and likely enjoyed the board play.
As with any all-star game there was a lot of shooting – though Tennessee's signees were judicious with their shots, and Bjorklund had four assists on some nifty passes – with 103 shots taken by the Red Team and 85 lofted by the White Team. Baugh was 2-4, Bjorklund was 3-5, and Cain was 2-6.
UConn signee Maya Moore led all scorers with 25 points for the Red Team on 11-24 shooting. She also had eight rebounds and six assists. Fellow UConn signee Lorin Dixon added 17 points and six assists for the Red Team and connected well on the floor with Moore.
Ohio State signee Jantel Lavender led the White Team with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Maryland signee Marah Strickland also had 20 points for the White Team. North Carolina signees Cetera DeGraffenreid (3-13) and Italee Lucas (5-13) hoisted a lot of shots for the White Team and scored 22 points among the two of them.
Tennessee's three signees were thrilled to be on the floor together in this game and eagerly await their reunion in Knoxville.
"Those are my friends so we can't wait," Baugh said. "We want to dominate. … I feel like if you're good enough for the best coach to recruit you then she wants you for a reason. That's one thing I admire about Pat is that she recruits what she wants."
Bjorklund said the trio is already exchanging notes on when they will arrive on campus this summer as they juggle USA basketball for Baugh and other summer commitments.
"We're all excited to get down there and start playing with each other," Bjorklund said.
When the rebounding totals were pointed out on the stat sheet – 27 among the three – Bjorklund agreed that Summitt "definitely" would notice those numbers.
"Pat recruits rebounders," Bjorklund said. "She's looking for what's going to fit into her system, and she's definitely all about that defense and rebounding so hopefully we'll be able to step up and do that."
"I really take pride in my rebounds," Cain said. "I love getting rebounds, and then I look to score. I like helping other people to score, too, by getting the rebound and starting the fast break."
Cain mopped up on the boards for the second consecutive all-star game, and Baugh showed some power moves around the basket and a willingness to get on the glass. She also wrapped a pass behind her back to Lavender, who scored at the buzzer right before halftime to put the White Team up 54-47.
Bjorklund has a quick shot release, the height to shoot over defenders and is accurate from behind the arc (2-2) and the free throw line (3-3). She also showed some decent defense that included blocking Moore's shot on one play. The block came after Moore had fouled Bjorklund on a three-pointer so it was a nice offensive-defensive sequence for the signee. However, Bjorklund also got beat on dribble penetration by Moore, but in her defense Moore was driving past a lot of defenders.
In the McDonald's All-America game Cain was on the East squad and Baugh and Bjorklund were on the West team. On Saturday they were glad to share a jersey color.
"It was nice," said Cain, who has been under the weather and was congested post-game. "I can't wait until we get up to Knoxville and start practicing and working together for awhile and see how well we bond together when we get up there. We've known each other from playing a lot tournaments together and from playing USA with Vicki Baugh. I got to know her then. I met Angie through tournaments and everytime we saw each other we made it a point to say hi to each other."
Cain saw Summitt and her staff when they entered the gym.
"I saw them when they came in, but I kind of forgot and blocked everything out," Cain said.
All three will attend the games Sunday as guests of the WBCA as part of the festivities of making the All-American squad.
"I can't wait to go and cheer on the Lady Vols," said Bjorklund, who indicated she would change her wardrobe if it were permitted. "It will probably be my highlight being able to watch the Final Four. We're all going. They set us up with tickets. We have to wear our (WBCA) sweatshirts, but I'll be cheering for the orange."
BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee leads the series with North Carolina, 12-3. … Tennessee is 1-2 in games played on April 1. The win came against Georgia, 73-51, in 1995. The two losses were to Southern Cal, 72-61, in 1984, and Louisiana Tech, 68-59, in 1988. … Tennessee's record in the Final Four is 17-10 with an 11-5 mark in the semifinal games. … With four Lady Vols making their debut at the Final Four in Shannon Bobbitt, Alberta Auguste, Cait McMahan and Elizabeth Curry the Tennessee program has now had 91 players participate in 17 Final Fours. The next-closest school is Louisiana Tech with 65 players in 10 Final Fours. …NCAA Tournament stats: Tennessee is scoring 76.8 points per game to 77.2 for North Carolina. The Lady Vols have hit 50.4 percent of their shots (117-233) to the Tar Heels' 48.2 percent success rate (110-228). UNC averages 42.5 boards a game in the tourney to 39.2 for UT. Tennessee is averaging 16.5 assists to 15.5 for North Carolina. The Lady Vols have taken care of the ball in the postseason – 11.3 turnovers a game to 20.0 for North Carolina. The Tar Heels are more likely to take away the ball – 11.5 steals per game to 7.5 for the Lady Vols. Both teams have blocked 24 shots in the NCAA tourney.
ODDS AND ENDS
BEST ADVICE: That given by the veterans to the newcomers to the Final Four, which is basically don't think too much about it.
"To be honest all you can tell them is that it's a different stage, but it's the game of basketball," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "When you hit the court and the whistle blows and the ball goes up you have to play Tennessee basketball, and you have to do that with confidence and sureness. Because you've been in this situation, you just don't know it.
"(At) LSU would be a great case. Early in the Duke game when we fought down from that 19-0 run. You've been in situations that you're going to be placed in in the Final Four, you're just on a different stage now."
Savor the newness, Nicky Anosike said.
"It's almost like when you're new to it you have so much more fire and intensity," Anosike said. "I remember my freshman year playing in the Final Four I was definitely nervous, but I think that there's something positive that comes with it being your first time because you're just ready to go out there and let everything loose. Whereas if you've been there before you're kind of trying to relax, and sometimes it's not always the best things to be relaxed."
UNSOLICITED ADVICE: That persistently given by Ivory Latta to Erlana Larkins.
"Ivory bugging me," Larkins said by way of citing an experience she could do without. "She's like a little fly in my ear all night saying, ‘We've got one more game, and we'll be there.' She was also saying that she'd rather me not pass it out as much as I do in one-on-one coverage, and we need for me to score."
The words were delivered with a smile and a roll of the eyes by Larkins, who prefers to be as quiet as Latta is loud. Larkins also could do without the media attention.
"It's tough," said Larkins, who has been called a beast on the boards. "I'm just human but everybody thinks I'm not. I don't really like it, but we have to do it so that's why I am here."
"Here" was in the middle of the locker room with a smile on her face and a three-deep pack of media encircling her.
BEST INSPIRATION, SPOKEN: Hornbuckle's recounting of the overtime win over Arkansas in which the Lady Vols came back from a late second half deficit.
"We were losing, we were down and out, people weren't playing well, and our team just pulled together and said, ‘We're not going to lose this game. I've got your back. I understand you're having a bad game, but we're here to help.' " Hornbuckle said. "That just brought a smile not only to our faces but to the coaches' faces."
BEST INSPIRATION, WORN The four rings worn on a chain around Candace Parker's neck.
Three of the rings have words on them – they were given to her by an AAU friend when Parker tore her ACL in the high school.
"Strength, excellence, commitment and then a ring that my boyfriend gave me that doesn't fit on my finger," Parker said. "I've always worn it."
The right ring finger was jammed in the Stanford game this season in Knoxville and remains swollen. Parker also hurt a finger – and the injury persisted all season – in the Stanford game a year ago in California.
SMACK TALK – UNC: Ivory Latta, discussing her competitive and emotional nature.
"I just love the game," Latta said. "I get very excited about it and very emotional. That's just me on and off the court. I'm very competitive, any games, video games, whatever it is. We play laser tag. We kill in laser tag. We kill our men's basketball team in laser tag. We're the best laser tag team there is."
SMACK TALK – UT: Alexis Hornbuckle discussing Shannon Bobbitt. She was asked which was the better ball handler. Bobbitt demonstrated one of her moves – catching the ball on the back of her leg and freezing it there – during the open practice session.
"She's small to the ground so she can do a lot more stuff with her hands and her feet," Hornbuckle said. "She might be catching the ball with her legs, which is harder for me because I have more bounce to go. I can't say I'm better or she's better."
Bu then Hornbuckle started shouting so Bobbitt could hear her: "But if you want to me say I'm better than Shannon Bobbitt, I will."
Both players burst out laughing.
BEST IMPERSONATORS: North Carolina's Christina Dewitt and Tennessee's Nicky Anosike. Their teammates say they can do spot-on impersonations of their respective head coaches.
BEST CONFIDENCE: Seemingly everyone.
"I would like to say she doesn't present any problems, but we all know she's a great player. She has an inside and an outside game. That's going to be a little trouble for us, but we're up for the challenge." Erlana Larkins talking about Candace Parker.
"We pretty much know each other well and what each other can do and strengths and weaknesses of each team. As long as we just go out there and keep our focus we'll definitely be fine." Ivory Latta on the game.
"It's going to be a great matchup. She does a great job for Tennessee. She's very quick and athletic. My main thing is to control her penetration and pretty much use my size to my advantage also. She's very quick off the dribble." Latta talking about the matchup with Shannon Bobbitt, though she couldn't mention having a size advantage with a straight face. Latta is listed at 5'6 but looks closer to 5'4.
"I feel like I'm definitely versatile as far as defense and as far as who I can guard. It definitely feels good that she does trust me playing on the perimeter, and she does trust me playing on the inside. I think it comes from my determined nature and not wanting that person in front of me to score." Nicky Anosike on Pat Summitt letting her play perimeter and post defense.
"They're a great defensive team. They also rebound the ball and will capitalize on your turnovers. We're just worried about how we're going to play defensively as well as rebound. I don't think we're worried about necessarily what they throw at us because we've had a lot of different looks. A lot of different teams have thrown a lot of different looks at us so we'll recognize it and hopefully take advantage of it." Candace Parker on Sunday's game.
BEST USE OF SECURITY: That called in to handle the crush of fans wanting autographs and photos when Tennessee's turn came up on the concourse of the arena Saturday. An officer got on his walkie-talkie and asked where the extra officers were. He then politely but firmly asked that they arrive soon as fans converged from all points of the arena.
The line waiting on the Lady Vols wrapped around the entire concourse. A separate line was started to accommodate those who just wanted photos. Security permitted one photo and then asked the people to move along to keep the line moving.
Tennessee tried to accommodate as many autograph seekers as possible by having the players sign stacks of the guitar sheets with their photos and then passing those out, but hundreds were left without anything since the sessions are limited to 30 minutes because the players also have to report for press interviews and open practice sessions.
Tennessee has asked to be given the sheets in advance so that the players could sign en route to the Final Four and then hand out pre-signed sheets to the waiting fans, but that wasn't done. So the players signed as many as they could as fast as they could while also trying to pose for photos and speak to fans.
The security guards were caught off guard by the crowd – it wasn't like that for the LSU and Rutgers teams – so they kept the extra ones in place since North Carolina followed Tennessee, and they expected another large crowd.
FUNNIEST PRESS CONFERENCE LINE: That by Pat Summitt. A speaker was emitting feedback on and off, and it started again as soon as Summitt sat down in front of her microphone.
"Did I do that?" Summitt asked. "I've been known to set things off."
SHORT BUT ACCURATE STATEMENT: That of C. Vivian Stringer. "Sylvia Fowles is the Lord for LSU."
LOUDEST APPLAUSE: At the open practices when Candace Parker dunked. Sylvia Fowles also dunked in LSU's open session.
BEST CHEERLEADER: Sidney Spencer, who borrowed a large "Clap" sign from the Tennessee cheerleaders and used it to lead the crowd.
LOVING AND LOUD FANS: A row of young girls who yelled "We love you Pat Summitt," until the coach heard them and turned around and waved.
BEST FLOOR THEME That of Cleveland's Final Four. The impression of a guitar extends from the lane on one end of the floor to the far corner on the other end. The scoreboard also is adorned with guitars.
ANOTHER FUNNY FROM THE PRESS CONFERENCE: Bob Starkey, in explaining why he doesn't want to be a head coach. He noted his skills were scouting, teaching and running practice and not recruiting, speaking or raising money. He also said he was 47 years old.
When it was pointed out that 47 was relatively young Starkey said, "I don't know. In coaching it's kind of like dog years. I think I aged about two years in the last three weeks."
ODDEST LOCKER ROOM STORY: The one about Candace Parker's left eyebrow. Parker is sporting noticeable abrasions on her left eyelid.
"I was like did you get burnt?" Alexis Hornbuckle said.
"It was a freak eyebrow accident," Parker said. "I like to say I'm tough, but I had my eyebrows done, and they took off my skin with it."
"How could someone mess up her eyebrow like that?" Hornbuckle asked.
It makes me look tougher, though, doesn't it?" Parker said. "Like you should see the other girl. If I look like this you should see the other girl."