Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt made an earlier trip to Tampa to meet with corporate sponsors and organizers of the ESPNU Women's Basketball Invitational.
I'm excited to be back," Summitt said. "I said that night I wanted to bring our team here for this event and hopefully they'll bring me back when the Final Four is here. Great place, great facility."
Summitt and Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale, along with Candace Parker and Courtney Paris, held press conferences Wednesday in a ballroom in the Westin hotel where the four teams in the invitational are headquartered. Duke and South Florida, whose coaches and players also met with reporters, play at 7 p.m. in the first game of the double-header.
Four teams. One venue. Even the promotional poster for the event talks about starting and finishing here. The implication for the teams is clear: Play now. Come back.
"We were most excited about the weather," Parker joked shortly after the Tennessee team arrived to the hotel and disembarked from the bus to 80-degree weather and sunshine. "In Knoxville it's been a little cold. I know we're really excited about this opportunity to play where the Final Four will be held, and that just gets our minds churning because obviously we would love to make it back here in April."
The Tennessee-Oklahoma game was one that was penciled in on NCAA tourney brackets last March in the regional final in Dayton, Ohio, but Ole Miss upset the Sooners and squared off against Tennessee for the right to go to Cleveland. So, ESPN, in an announcement made at the Final Four last spring, got the teams together to start this season.
"Incredibly flattered that ESPN thought that we would be a draw for them and flattered to test our young team against the likes of Tennessee," Coale said. "We knew it was an opportunity we could not pass up."
One of the primary reasons for that draw was the appeal of Parker, a 6'5 forward for Tennessee, and Paris, a 6'4 center for Oklahoma. On Tuesday, Coale described Parker as a wild bird flying freely and gracefully on the court. On Wednesday she reiterated how difficult it would be for any team to guard her.
"She's an anomaly," Coale said. "She presents a problem for everybody that plays against them just because she can do so many things from so many different spots on the floor. The comparison I made was between she and Courtney and both being absolutely extraordinary at what they do and next to impossible to prevent from being effective. You just have to do the best that you can with them and I think limit their touches because if either of those guys touches the basketball you're in trouble.
"I think you've got to guard them before they get the ball to have a chance to be successful. One of the things Candace doesn't get enough attention for or enough respect for is the ability to create offense off of her defense. She's so long and can get in passing lanes and can rebound and take a rebound and lead a break on the other end of the floor. That presents matchup problems. She presents all kinds of challenges in the open floor."
The two players who are the focus of so much attention are both nonplused and understanding of why.
"Like my coach said it's good for women's basketball if you can pump up players and put that attention on them and get people watching then it's good," Paris said. "But in no way do I go in this game thinking, ‘I've got to stop Candace.' But I think it's a promo for our sport and if it helps it, then good."
When it was noted that Oklahoma and Tennessee were finally going to play, Paris pointed out it's a little different from an opponent's perspective than a observer's.
"I don't think anyone is saying ‘finally' about getting to play Tennessee anytime," Paris said in reference to the Lady Vols overall dominance in the women's game. "They're the kind of team every young kid growing up you might not know about Oklahoma, you might not know about Baylor, you might not know about whatever school but everybody has heard about Tennessee and Connecticut and having the opportunity to finally play one of those teams is pretty cool.
"They're a legendary school with a legendary coach, and they have Candace Parker, one of the best players in the world, and it's a great opportunity, and a good stage for us to really test ourselves."
"We want to do special things and in order to have an opportunity to do special things in April you'd better prepare yourself in November," Coale said. "If we can find out the first week of competition in November what our strengths our, what our weaknesses are, what we really need to get better at, what we can do to hurt people, there's no telling how good we can get.
"If you find that out end of February, first of March you don't have the room to grow. This group of kids has a chance to really be extraordinary together. We're going to take some lumps early – we understand that."
Of course, reports of Oklahoma's demise because of the first game loss to the Terrapins, the 2006 national champs with the primary pieces of that team intact, are premature. The Sooners are breaking in a young backcourt, and sophomore point guard Jenna Plumley endured some growing pains in that first game.
"She didn't shoot it well against Maryland, but other than that she played pretty well," Coale said. "What Jenna has to adjust to is leading a team on the floor and definitely as a point guard, even when you're a young point guard, you're leading the team, and she did that last year but when you're flanked by two fifth-year seniors you don't feel quite the pressure.
"I think Jenna was feeling a great deal of pressure and sense of responsibility for running her team, which she will relax into. She'll be fine with that, and she's going to make shots. She's not going to make one of six very often in her career. … I like our spunk. We have some chutzpah, and I think we'll be all right."
For all the talk about Parker and Paris the game will also hinge on guard play. Paris needs the Sooner guards to hit some outside shots to loosen up the inside. Parker also has more room to maneuver inside when the shooters are stretching the defense.
"I couldn't be more excited for this game coming up," Bobbitt said. "We were supposed to play them in the tourney last season. This is what the fans want to see. They want to see the Paris twins go against our post players. We're just going to see who's going to come out with a victory."
Ashley Paris scored 17 points against Maryland and took advantage of defenders doubling her sister.
"That's exactly what Ashley said in the game: ‘If they're helping off you guys, give me the ball. If they're not double-teaming me I'll go score,' " Courtney Paris said. "That meant a lot to me. That's her stepping up big time and letting the team know she's ready to go to work. She said it herself. They're not going to double-team both of us. They can't do that. Once our shots start falling and we start playing a little better and get more comfortable I think we'll be pretty good."
Despite the defensive attention, Courtney Paris still got a double-double – her record streak is at 62 consecutive games – with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Parker, the reigning Wade Trophy winner and MVP of the Final Four, is trying to lead Tennessee to back-to-back national titles this season.
"I do think that what ESPN has given us a chance to do via this event is showcase two of our game's icons in Courtney and Candace," Coale said. "And certainly this is Tennessee vs. Oklahoma, but at the same time it's a lot like back in the day when the Lakers and the Celtics played. If you can get a ticket to go watch Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, are you kidding me, would you be anywhere else on the planet if you have a appreciation for sports at all or basketball in particular?
"I look at this event for women's basketball in much the same way. There may not ever be players the likes of them again and to have them on the floor together facing one another is a very special opportunity."
Wednesday's press conference was used as a platform to both promote tonight's game and the sport as a whole. Summitt used part of her time to point out how much Parker meant to her.
"I can tell you coaching Candace Parker is a dream come true for me," Summitt said. "I watched her play when she was about as tall as she is now but much younger and I just thought, ‘I never want to play against this young woman.' I have tremendous respect for her game and how she has handled the role that she plays, not only at Tennessee, but in women's basketball."
The Tennessee fans have certainly flocked to Tampa. The scene at the airport in Knoxville on Wednesday morning was a sea of orange in the concourse, despite the fact the game is on a weekday with a late tip.
"One of the reasons I came to Tennessee was because of our huge fan support," said Parker, who singled out the other Lady Vol teams as also attracting fans and the success of which has a cumulative effect on all of the programs. "I feel very blessed to have the support that we have at Tennessee, and it's like no other in the country. Everywhere we go, whether it's the mall or out to eat, you always have somebody that comes up to you and congratulates you and asks you if you know Coach Summitt."
The remark elicited incredulous laughter from the assembled media.
You're like, ‘Yeah, she's my coach. I know her,' " Parker said with a puzzled look.
Tampa, which is steeped in sports with the NHL, NFL, Yankees spring training complex and a surging South Florida football program, is getting its first look at the upper echelon of women's college basketball.
Naturally, the question of Parker dunking was asked. In this case she was asked what it was like.
Parker laughed but wasn't sure how to describe it.
"I don't know," Summitt interjected. "You guys don't know either."
Finally Parker distilled it down to sibling rivalry.
"The most excited I got to dunk was the fact I did it before my brothers did," said Parker, who was 15 when she was first dunked, while her brothers couldn't slam until they were 16.
One of those brothers, Anthony Parker, is now a Toronto Raptor, and makes his off-season home in the Tampa area. Parker visited him over the past summer.
"I rub it in their face," said Parker, though she has also noted how humble her brothers keep her.
As far as dunking, Parker said, "Anything that brings attention to the women's game is great because I think we're still in the process, we're still growing, and we need to put fans in the seats. So whatever gets us talking about it is fine with me."
When Parker doesn't dunk on a breakaway, the crowd often lets out a collective groan.
"I've gotten some boos for laying it up," Parker said. "I'm like, ‘I made the shot.' "
Some of the precaution can be attributed to Summitt. She has applauded Parker's ability and given her the green light to do so, but with a few restrictions.
"I've been open-minded to the dunk," Summitt said. "I know how Coach Wooden feels about it and there's not a coach in the history of game who has done what he's done and a coach that I have more respect for, but looking at the women's game – and Candace alluded to this – it does generate excitement with the fans. When we go play (on the road), they want Candace to dunk and they're disappointed, just like our own fans (if she doesn't).
"My thing with that is I don't want her dunking in traffic or anyone being right there with her because I'm always concerned about what could happen. I think when it's happened it's been exciting. Obviously it's been talked about. Why do you replay it all the time if it isn't something that you're impressed me and also that you think is good for women's basketball? And I think it has been good for women's basketball."
Thursday's double-header is also good for women's basketball. Duke, 1-0, and host South Florida, 1-0, get it started.
"We have a great opportunity to play one of the best teams in the country," South Florida Coach Jose Fernandez said. "What a great event for our community. We're happy to be a part of that. This is an event that is going to make a mark on this community."
South Florida junior center Jessica Lawson, a Florida native who went to Cal but transferred back home, and junior guard Shantia Grace, who hails from Sarasota, accompanied Fernandez to the press conference and said the high-profile game will bring more exposure to their program.
The success of the football program has been a boost, Grace said. When the players walk around Tampa in South Florida shirts more fans have wanted to stop them and talk sports.
"It helps a lot," said Grace, who noted some of the football players come to their games in support.
Lady Vol fans will see a familiar face on the USF bench. Former Tennessee center Shalon Pillow (1998-2002) is starting her third season as an assistant coach.
No. 10 Duke will be missing one of its top players in the game against the Bulls. Junior guard Abby Waner was in a walking boot and on crutches at the press conference after turning her left ankle in practice this week.
Waner said she didn't step on anyone; she just came down wrong on her foot.
"I wish I could have better stories," said Waner, who added the injury was not serious, and she expected to return to the court later in the week.
"You can't create an Abby," Duke Coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "It's an event outside of our control. We're going to make the best of it."
Duke and Tennessee will play later this season, and McCallie said she would watch some of the second game for scouting purposes before the team headed back to Durham so the players won't miss Friday classes.
McCallie knows South Florida will come into the game with a devil-may-care attitude and will be looking to upset a ranked team in its backyard.
"We truly expect their best game," McCallie said.
Tennessee also knows it's a marked team for this game and every subsequent one this season. The national title just provided even more incentive for a team to knock off the Lady Vols.
"We understand that's part of being at Tennessee," Summitt said. "The reality really sets in when we start to play. A lot of times we'll not even show them a lot of tape of some teams because we know that what we see on tape is not what we're going to get, because we're going to get everyone's best shot.
"It obviously is a compliment to our team and our program, but I wouldn't have it any other way. It speaks volumes to the players who have been at Tennessee and what they've been able to accomplish."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (4.0 points per game, 4.0 rebounds per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (8.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard, No. 5 (8.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (23.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (9.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg).
Oklahoma is expected to start: Jenna Plumley, 5'4 sophomore guard, No. 11 (5.0 ppg, 4.0 ppg); Nyeshia Stevenson, 5'9 sophomore forward, No. 1 (2.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg); Amanda Thompson, 6'0 sophomore forward, No. 21 (8.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg); Ashley Paris, 6'3 junior forward, No. 5 (17.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg); and Courtney Paris, 6'4 junior center, No. 3 (11.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg)
The late tip means the teams have a long time to wait for the game. The players don't seem to mind.
"It's probably good because our kids don't get going until late," Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "They're ready to play. They don't care about the time. The coaches may be asleep."
Tennessee will treat the game like any other road trip but will do each activity a little later in the day.
"We'll sleep in, then we'll do a shoot-around, then we'll do scouting," Warlick said. "The same as we usually do – just move it back a little bit."
Bobbitt is ready to see the inside of the Forum. There was an NHL game Wednesday night so the Lady Vols haven't been on the floor yet, but Wednesday was a scheduled day off anyway.
"It's going to be a great experience playing on the court," Bobbitt said. "It's going to be one of the reasons why we want to strive to get there in April."
The late tip doesn't bother her at all.
"We're going to be focused," Bobbitt said. "We don't take trips to lose. We definitely have a good time and at the same time we come to win. We're definitely going to have to stay mentally strong and stay positive and stay focused for the game."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Oklahoma game. Here is her assessment.
When Oklahoma has the ball: "Go high-low, pound it inside. They're a great duo. Ashley, she's playing well. Courtney is Courtney. She's strong. She knows how to move inside. She knows how to position. Ashley has really stepped her game up from last year. She's going to get more playing time. They do a lot of high-low. Their guards shoot the three. They have penetrators. We've just got to take away the high-low pass and not allow them to get high-lows on us."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We want to play inside-out. We always do. We're going to try to run on them. Hope our defense can give us some points. We're just going to do what we do. We've got to have second-chance points. We're not putting anything special in or anything that they haven't seen."
Warlick watched game tape from last season and then the Maryland game from this season.
"They probably don't have the experience at the perimeter position, but they're quick, they're athletic," Warlick said. "She's playing some young kids in young spots, and they're going to get better. They're a nice team. Maryland did a good job of doubling down on (Courtney) Paris, and Ashley Paris played a very good game. They didn't rebound on the defensive end. Maryland was getting second-chance points."
The Paris twins present a formidable challenge inside because of their size.
"She's going to play the high post area more than her sister," Warlick said of Ashley. "They're the same type players, but she's going to play in the high post area more. They want Courtney on that block because that's where she's the most effective."
CP3s: Candace Parker and Courtney Paris, who share initials and a jersey number, have played together twice for USA basketball. They were roommates on the 2004 U.S. Women's Junior World Championship Qualifying Team in Puerto Rico and, more recently, teammates on the Senior National Team that secured a spot in Beijing by winning the gold medal at the FIBA Americas Championship in Chile.
"Constantly smart comments," Parker said of her impressions of Paris as a person. "She's a jokester. She's hilarious. She has a dry sense of humor. She's always laughing. We had fun this fall just hanging out."
"She's a banger down low," Parker said of her impressions of Paris as a player. "She uses her body well. She's a rebounder. She does what she does very well. She's a great player."
The two players can empathize with the other in terms of being the face of the respective programs in terms of hype. The TV promotions for the game show photos of Parker and Paris. The media questions have been about the duo. Both were the selected player to accompany the coach to the press conference.
"I can empathize with that, but that's how it's always been," Parker said. "That's nothing that we're not used to being in college for three and four years."
But when they talk, it's not about basketball.
"We don't talk about anything serious," Parker said. "Our conversations are funny."
"It's been cool," Paris said of the pair's relationship. "I know how much pressure it is being the top player. You go to a store in Oklahoma and everyone wants to talk to you. Candace has that when she leaves the country, but she's still so humble and fun to be around. We didn't talk about basketball at all. She's a fun person with a lot of fun stories. I really admire that about her."
Parker noted that she has considerable contributions from her teammates – she specifically cited Nicky Anosike's 10 rebounds in the season opener – whereas Oklahoma is breaking in a young backcourt. Parker knows she is the go-to player on the court, but she'd rather point out who else makes a difference.
"I think she's getting more help from her sister as her sister has matured," Parker added.
Courtney said Ashley knew she had to contribute more this season.
"She's been working on her game these past few years and really this off-season," Courtney said. "She's gotten a greater sense of urgency knowing she's going to have to step up and be a starter and one of the leaders on our team, and she proved it. I'm very excited about that."
Parker came to Tennessee to win championships. She snipped down her first net as a player at her first Final Four after the Lady Vols missed the cut in 2006.
Paris went to Oklahoma to get the Sooners, who made a trip to the Final Four in 2002, back on the national map of title contenders.
"That's my goal," Paris said. "That's what I wanted when I came here. I felt like this is the program that I wanted to go after it with. It's my goal to get to the Final Four and it's our team goal. We're just going to get working towards that."
For that reason a November trip to Tampa seemed like an excellent idea.
"I think it's very cool," Paris said. "I've had an opportunity to be at the last two Final Fours, not as a player but as an All-American. I think it's so cool to get all of us guys here, especially since we have so many young guys, and really see what's it's about and where it's going to be played and then play a team who won it last year and likely to be in the Final Four this year to really set ourselves up to see what we're working towards. I think it's perfect for us and we're really going to learn a lot from it."
Pat Summitt said teams getting an early look at Tampa would know exactly what they're shooting for in the postseason.
"Maybe no (competitive) advantage at this point in time but certainly a motivation for our basketball team and our program and our coaching staff, our fans," Summitt said. "Every year that's a goal of Tennessee and what we want to accomplish in the end, but we know it's a long journey, and it's a process, and it's one game at a time mentality.
"But to have an opportunity to bring our team here was special so that they could see this facility and ultimately think about their goal and making that reality as we work through a long and challenging schedule this year and get back and compete for another national championship."
SIGNING DAY: Tennessee has six verbal commitments from the class of 2008 and received four faxed letters of intent on the first day of the week-long early signing period.
Alyssia Brewer, Amber Gray, Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen sent in their LOIs on Wednesday. Briana Bass's high school coach is on vacation, and she is waiting on his return. Her LOI is expected to be sent this weekend. Alicia Manning's LOI also is expected to be sent this week and may have made it to the Lady Vols office late Wednesday, but most of the staff for Tennessee was in Tampa by that time.
Pat Summitt can comment about the class once all of the LOIs are received by Tennessee.
PROMOTE THE GAME: Pat Summitt is a tireless promoter of the women's game. Tennessee's interview period ran well past its allotted time Wednesday to accommodate print, radio and TV media, some of which needed one-on-one interviews for their segments.
Summitt has a promotion partner in Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale, who embraces the role and has an excellent rapport with the press.
"OK, I'm not sure why I am standing behind a podium that does not have a microphone," Coale said of the setup Wednesday in which the coach and a player stood on a dais. "I could just stand down right there by you guys, if you want."
She then adjusted the microphone-less mike stand and delivered some funny and engaging comments.
Coale noted how young the Sooners were in key spots and how it showed during one stop in play Sunday when she went to talk to freshman Carlee Roethlisberger and ended up calling time within a timeout.
"We're in the Maryland game, and I'm drawing up a play in a 30-second timeout and I'm telling one of my freshmen, ‘This is where you need to be,' and I'm looking for her and ‘Where's Carlee?' and she's like three people back in the huddle," Coale said. "I go, ‘OK, timeout. When we have a huddle and you're on the floor I need you in front of me.'
"That's the kind of stuff we're working on right now. We'd be in defensive transition and we'd get two freshmen doing the right thing and one wouldn't, and Maryland will make you pay for it – and Tennessee will be exactly the same way – but by the end of the game more often than not we had at least four out of five guys get to the right spot at the right time. It's fun to coach these young guys, because the ceiling is so high, and we will get better."
Coale noted the Oklahoma program has succeeded in winning the Big 12 Conference and getting to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis.
"That's what Oklahoma is accustomed to; you win the league and you go to the Sweet 16, and that's what our people expect and that's what we expect," Coale said. "We want to take that another step. We want to be one of those that's always at the Final Four. In order to do that you've got to play these guys. Tennessee and Connecticut have been playing the toughest schedules in the country for years. It's worked out nicely for them. We'll see what it can do for us."
Coale feels like her team is creeping closer, but the benchmark is to beat the teams that are annual favorites to make the Final Four.
"We're close," Coale said. "We're not there yet until we beat one of the them. I firmly believe that. We can stay on the floor with them, and we can challenge them, but we haven't beaten one of those perennial Final Four teams yet. And there are not many. We're talking about three or four. … If you want to mention us alongside those we've got to beat one of them first."
Coale, who is starting her 12th year at Oklahoma, remembers when the Sooners drew about 200 a game.
During the game if Coale needed to talk strategy to an assistant, she would whisper so the opposing coach could not hear her. She looked in the stands and knew nearly every person, and it was likely they came because she asked them to.
Now, they average 12,000 per home game and the sparse crowd at the Tipoff Classic in North Carolina was bothersome to her. Nothing would make her happier than a large crowd tonight in the Forum.
"That's what people in our profession have to understand," Coale said. "I speak to every Rotary Club. I speak to the Lion's Club. I'm at the Chamber of Commerce. I'm in the community telling people in the grocery store and Target, ‘Hey, we've got a game.' "
That approach has her kids strategizing if they want to get in and out of a store quickly, such as when they needed shoes before school started.
They told her: "Duck your head mom. Walk. Wear sunglasses. Here we go. Don't speak," Coale said, but the distinctive curls and voice – a "double whammy" – give her away.
"You're never done," Coale said. "You're always on. That goes with it. I actually enjoy that part of it. I feel like I'm doing something that matters. My 90-year-old grandmother just lives for Oklahoma women's basketball. We got her a Tivo so when the games come on too late, we Tivo them, and then she can watch them. There is a non-stop ripple."
The players tend to live in the moment – and not the big picture – but Coale said she hopes the feelings from being in Tampa will linger and inspire the team to want to return in the spring.
"I think we can help keep it there," Coale said. "It's an opportunity that only four teams have to come here. We're in a very special circumstance here."
She likes the team she has this season, but Coale knows she must be patient as they develop the perimeter game and mix in some talented freshmen with the returnees.
"Nothing really happened in that Maryland game that surprised me," Coale said. "Honestly, I thought we would get an uppercut and be dizzy for a little bit and wander around and while we were doing that they made a bunch of baskets and then we steadied ourselves and fought back and came at them again until they had to have a sense of urgency to hold their lead and then we fought again and went down swinging in the end.
"Our young guys got better from the first half to the second half. I thought our team play got better from the first half to the second half. There was a great combination of things that we were trying to overcome in the first half. One, being first game of the year, you're always a little bit nervous. Two, being you're playing Maryland, who won a national championship in 2006. Three being you've got a whole bunch of young guys who have never been in a Division I game before.
"All of that wound up together to make it a great learning environment for our kids. We're going to be the better for it come January and February."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Oklahoma, 2-0. The teams last played in Norman in 2003 in a sold-out game. Pat Summitt said Wednesday that Tennessee will be starting a new series with the Sooners. … Tennessee is 1-1 in games played on Nov. 15. The win came in 1997 over Grambling. The loss was to Purdue in 1998 and snapped a 46-game winning streak that encompassed the 39-0 national championship season. … Lady Vol freshman center Kelley Cain has not practiced this week and is listed as day-to-day because of soreness and swelling in her knee. … The Lady Vols season ticket sales for the 2007-08 season is at 11,018. … Oklahoma's roster has familial connections to some big-time sports figures. The Paris twins are the daughters of William "Bubba" Paris, the All-Pro for the San Francisco 49ers. Carlee Roethlisberger is the sister of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Abi Olajuwon is the daughter of NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon. Amanda Thompson is a cousin of longtime NBA player Bryon Russell.