Parker led Tennessee with 22 points, but the USA team, paced by Diana Taurasi with 28 points and Lisa Leslie with 18, defeated Tennessee, 83-72, before a crowd of 13,927 to stay undefeated on the 2007 college tour. The USA team now heads to Baylor. Tennessee returns to practice to get ready for the next exhibition game with Carson-Newman on Tuesday.
Coach Pat Summitt looked at the rebounding stats – 45-31 in favor of the USA team – and seized upon one of her favorite preseason themes: board play.
"I'm disappointed in our rebounding and our lack of physical play inside," Summitt said. "Our post people looked like all finesse players at times. I expect more from Nicky Anosike, and I expect more from Alex (Fuller) and from Candace as far as they just have to impose themselves and impose the will of posting up and not being denied the ball inside unless they are double-teamed, which Candace got in that situation today. Our post game has got to get a lot better, and our rebounding has got to get a lot better."
Of course, the USA team had something to do with that. They started with post players with size and savvy in Lisa Leslie at 6'5 and Taj McWilliams-Franklin at 6'2 and then rotated in Katie Feenstra at 6'8 and Kara Braxton at 6'6.
"Those were some big girls – not in a bad way. Quote that, not in a bad way," said Lady Vol guard Alexis Hornbuckle. "But obviously a lot bigger than we're used to seeing and playing against night in and night out. As far as physicality goes I saw it this summer at the Pan Ams and Candace gets it playing with the USA team and every opponent that we played against in previous years they come at us trying to push up off the block, trying to body us up. Heather Mason, our strength and conditioning coach, does a great job of getting us prepared for that. So we just kind of took it in stride and tried to beat them a different way."
The traditional way of position and creating space didn't work.
"Even when you think you're boxing out and moving them you're going nowhere," Hornbuckle said. "I feel like they're a lot stronger. It's like when you were a little kid, and they're grabbing the ball. I think we can only get better from this point out."
Tennessee trailed at halftime, 38-29. But the Lady Vols stayed close in the second half and were only down three, 73-70, with 3:48 left in the game thanks to back-to-back threes by Shannon Bobbitt on back-to-back steals by Hornbuckle.
Hornbuckle assisted on the first one and set up the second one with a spectacular defensive play in which she broke up the entry pass on the USA's end by deflecting the ball, which caromed to the corner. She spun away from one player and then, while falling out of bounds, managed to fire a pass into Angie Bjorklund, who pushed the ball down the floor. Bobbitt drained a three-pointer from the left corner at about the same time Hornbuckle, who slid into the first row, got to mid-court.
"Solid," Summitt said of Hornbuckle's overall game. "She's committed to playing hard at both ends of the court. She's an unselfish player. She obviously never gives up. She's going to be the hustle player. She's going to be the one that will get everybody fired up and excited on the defensive end of the floor. I think one of the most athletic guards in the country and certainly she can have a great influence on both ends."
Hornbuckle played 39 minutes – made necessary by the absence of wing player Alberta Auguste, who has an injured calf – and scored seven points with six rebounds, five assists, five steals and zero turnovers.
"I didn't even know I played 39 minutes," Hornbuckle said. "Adrenaline's rushing. I'm trying to do what it takes for the team whether it's two minutes, 39, or 40-plus. We started (the preseason) to get in great condition so we're able to go for a 40-plus game every night."
Parker got off to a slow start. She was 1-6 in the first half with four points. But she shot 6-8 in the second half and finished with seven boards, all on the defensive end.
"First half, they definitely covered her with one-and-a half, sometimes two players, particularly when they went zone on us," Summitt said. "We didn't do a good job of moving the ball, nor did we do a good job of moving Candace. I thought we did a much better job of both in the second half. We moved her to the three and let her play some on the three and then back at the four and let her work the high post.
"She was able to attack the rim with a lot more success in that situation. We were trying to free her up and get her more touches."
Summitt was able to move Parker by bringing in Alex Fuller, who logged 24 minutes off the bench – the most of any substitute – and the freshmen post players, Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain. Baugh played 15 minutes and showed glimpses of what she can do with five points and three boards. Cain, who had missed nearly two weeks of practice with a concussion, was limited to four minutes and didn't score. She did have two steals.
"Vicki Baugh it's just a matter of time," Summitt said. "She needs repetition. Kelley Cain has been out of practice so much that she was not ready to play at the intensity level. It's just a matter of time for her as well. I feel really good about the size that we have in the post and that should be an advantage for us."
The two freshmen guards, Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone, were responsible for five of Tennessee's nine made three-pointers. Bjorklund was the second-leading scorer with 13 – her 20-footer on an assist from Hornbuckle was UT's first points of the game – and Smallbone added eight points.
"I was really pleased with Sydney," Summitt said. "She knows why she got recruited to Tennessee, and it wasn't because of her defense. Angie knew the same thing, but they're both very committed to learning our defensive system, and I think they're going to be solid defenders for us. Obviously you've got to guard them. They're going to make shots."
The freshmen were responsible for 15 of Tennessee's first 16 points with Baugh making a free throw and the guards hitting from outside. Smallbone made both of her three-point attempts and drove the lane against the USA team, finishing with a soft underhanded lay-in.
The next two points came from Bobbitt, who drove on Kara Lawson and floated in a short jumper with one second on the shot clock. That put Tennessee up, 18-15, but the USA team fed the ball inside to Leslie and found Taurasi and Seimone Augustus on the outside to push the lead to nine by halftime.
Tennessee was down 12 with 5:48 to play in the second half but managed to trim nine points off the lead in two minutes by getting the ball to Parker inside – Fuller got an assist on a textbook high-low pass – and getting outside shots from Bobbitt.
But the USA team went back inside – Taurasi and Leslie ran a play that left Hornbuckle switched off on Leslie underneath with Parker on Taurasi – and had the lead back out to double digits within two minutes.
Tennessee went away from its inside strategy in those closing minutes and started missing jumpers.
"We should have gotten (Parker) more touches late," Summitt said. "That's something I told Shannon we'll talk about that. I did not think that we had really the right attack that we wanted. That's when we lost our edge."
"We obviously competed," Summitt said. " I told our basketball team that we didn't invite them here just to compete with them. We wanted to beat them. They obviously made the big plays when they had to make big plays. I thought we had a great run late in the second half. That started with better defense."
The Lady Vols weren't able to stop Taurasi, who was 4-9 from behind the arc and 9-15 overall. There were a few scattered boos directed at Taurasi when the USA team was introduced, but she was also cheered and applauded, something Taurasi isn't used to in Thompson-Boling Arena. The fans cheered enthusiastically when she was called for her first foul – the game was physical and the fans were expressing their displeasure with the officials on a regular basis – and cheered even louder when Taurasi picked up numbers two and three.
"The bigger the game the bigger Diana shows up," Donovan said. "She couldn't wait to come to Knoxville and hear the wrath. She was hoping she was going to get booed. She just is a competitor through and through. I can't say enough about her."
After the game, Taurasi hugged Parker, her USA teammate in September, and lauded her play in the press conference.
"After the game I said I'd rather play with you than against you," Taurasi said. "She's just a heck of a player and that second half really showed why hands down the best player in college. It doesn't matter what rank you have as far as playing college or the pros, she's one of the top players in the world, and she shows it every night. She looks great."
Parker blamed herself for the slow start in the first half and said she needed to be more assertive.
"I think it was just me," Parker said. "I wasn't demanding the ball in the first half. I made an adjustment and got some touches. I think that got Lex cutting open, Angie cutting open, Shannon for threes. I think it's just making sure that everybody is doing their part because, although you may cut and not get the ball, you'll open it up for somebody else. I think I understood that going into the second half."
Taurasi noted Parker was trying to get into the flow of the game.
"Sometimes, being Candace, people think that you're going to get 30 each half," Taurasi said. "But sometimes you just have to feel your way out and I think that's what she was doing in the first half. Other people were playing well, Bjorklund was hitting shots; Hornbuckle and Bobbitt were playing well. She did a good job getting them the ball. In the second half, I think she felt a little more comfortable and it showed. She looked great."
Bjorklund became just the 11th Lady Vol to start her first collegiate game, and it took her a few minutes to settle down. She picked up two fouls in the first five minutes but also drained her first shot attempt from 20 feet.
"I really didn't know what to expect," Bjorklund said. "The fans were awesome. The first thing you walk in and just see all the orange. That was awesome. Right from the start it's a lot different from high school. The tempo is faster. Everything is a step up."
Parker acknowledged being a wee bit star-struck when she walked onto the floor with Leslie.
"She's an Olympian," Parker said. "I've watched her play ever since I was like 10 or 11. I'm not aging her on that. I'm just saying I've grown up watching her play. That has been my hero. To step on the floor with her and to play against her and for her to know who I was and talk to me and things like that, it was an honor. I respect her game a lot."
When Parker was asked if it was kind of a big deal to win the opening tip against Leslie, she said no, but her beaming smile said otherwise.
"I think she's a very good player," Leslie said of Parker. "Obviously the offense goes through her. I think she was a little nervous in the beginning, but she played through it and did a great job."
The Lady Vol players weren't upset in the post-game press conference – an exhibition loss to the USA national team wasn't unexpected – but they also sensed that they had let the game get away from them.
"We don't really like to lose," Parker said. "I don't really think of it as a moral victory. We lost. The score was … whatever it was. We lost. But I'm proud of how we battled at some points. And we were down three with three minutes to go. That is a testament to how hard we played. And we'll be battling against some of the best.
"We have to go back to the drawing board, because there were some possessions that we took off and there were possessions that we messed up and didn't run our offense and didn't play great defense. It could have easily been a different story."
"Having Candace, that's the one difference with Tennessee is having a player of her caliber," Lawson said. "That's something that the other schools that we've played don't have."
Lawson, who hit the game winner against the USA team as a freshman in 1999 – the only collegiate loss for the national team – can also appreciate the play of the freshmen, particularly the young guards.
"Bjorklund's a nice player," Lawson said as Taurasi nodded in agreement. "She's got good composure. You can tell that she knows how to play the game. She doesn't seem rushed when things are going pretty fast out there. I was definitely impressed with those guys. The freshmen for Tennessee are going to have to play a big role this year if they're going to repeat. They need those guys for their depth."
Donovan said the USA team got exactly what it anticipated from Tennessee.
"We expected this to be very competitive as was the case at Connecticut and Maryland," Donovan said. "There was lots of good pressure by them and it was a great game for us in terms of having to get our composure at the end of the game and finish a game off. They really challenged us down the stretch. You expect nothing less from Tennessee. They gave us a great ball game from start to finish."
For Augustus, a former star at LSU, it was nice to be cheered in Knoxville. She finished the game with 12 points.
"It was different actually getting to hear the applause," Augustus said. "It's a joy just to be able to come back and play against a top team like this and to be in this atmosphere. The fans always come out and support the Lady Vols."
The arena, of course, is also quite different than when Lawson, Augustus and Taurasi were in college. The north side is now a bank of luxury suites and loge seating and the orange seats were replaced with black ones.
"We actually miss the orange seats believe it or not," Taurasi said. "As the visitors, if you find something that's annoying, as the home team I think you would want that to stick. But the arena looks great. It looks like an NBA arena out there with the seats and the boxes. I don't see why Knoxville wouldn't be the next franchise for the WNBA. They're probably really happy I said that."
"I think they've put themselves to be the nicest arena in the country," Lawson said. "It looks like a pro arena. I think it was a little bit too big before seating-wise. I think it's better having it down a couple of thousand."
Lawson's photo and bio are on the concourse of the arena in recognition of her "Torchbearer" award, the highest academic honor that can be bestowed on a UT student.
"I didn't know," Lawson said. "Tina told me that. She was walking the concourse and her son, Dylan, saw me out there. I didn't know I was up there. I'll have to go check that out."
Tina Thompson, who played with the USA team last September in Chile in the Olympic qualifying tournament, was in attendance Sunday with her 2-year-old son. Leslie's baby, Lauren, who was born June 25, was with them.
Leslie's play, just four months after delivery by C-section, has been somewhat remarkable.
"Women are amazing," Parker said. "We are. We're amazing to be able to do that. I know a lot of athletes who have had kids and come back and been better than they were before. That just speaks to women."
Leslie's competitive nature is apparent. So are her maternal instincts with the younger college players. In these three games Leslie has taken the time to talk to her opponents and offer encouragement. When Parker was knocked to the floor during a scramble, Leslie stopped to help her up.
Donovan is seeing improvement with each tick of the game clock.
"Lisa gets better every possession, not just every game, but every possession," Donovan said. "With every opportunity for our program and our coaches to merge and get better and develop that chemistry, we're going to be better for it in Beijing, which is what this tour is all about, just to get more cohesive and more opportunities against great college competition."
"I want to try to get better and better each game and tonight was a good challenge because they have big posts, they run the floor well, Candace plays out on the perimeter," Leslie said. "I just took the challenge to work hard and get after it more defensively."
Parker should join the USA team next summer – it's a tantalizing thought to picture her and Leslie patrolling the paint together – but for now Parker remains in the moment. And for Tennessee that means practice Monday.
"Obviously, that's not on my mind right now but ever since I was little I dreamed of playing in the Olympics," Parker said. "Representing my country would be an honor. I'm not thinking about that right now. I'm thinking about Carson-Newman and coming to practice tomorrow. I think that's why we won the national championship last year because we took it one day at a time."
That was clearly where Summitt's mind was Sunday evening after the game. She saw enough to confirm what she thought – the Lady Vols are talented – but Summitt knows it's a long road from November to April.
"This team has a chance to be a special team, but they're going to have to be better defensively," Summitt said. "They're going to have to have better ball security and they're going to have to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country. And we're far from that yet."