In an event billed as Parker's homecoming, it seemed right that Fuller would be the one sitting with Parker afterwards to talk about the game.
When Parker missed curfew on New Year's Eve, Fuller was the easy choice to move into the starting lineup Wednesday. The All-American from Shelbyville, Tennessee, has post and perimeter skills but has come off the bench for the Lady Vols because she is best suited as a power forward, and that is where Parker often lines up.
"She had the hot hand, there's no doubt," Coach Pat Summitt said. "Alex has been shooting the basketball well in games and in practice. She had a lot of composure. The one thing Alex has not done as much this year is shoot with her back to the basket or create opportunities with her back to the basket, but she did a nice job of that tonight. She's been really strong with her face-up game, but it was good to see her with her paint points."
With 31 minutes of play, Fuller was able to put her repertoire of shots on display. She finished to her left and right and with both hands. She drained her only first-half three-point attempt for good measure. She also uncorked a hook shot on the baseline.
Where did that come from?
"I don't know. Candace, did you teach her that?" Summitt said to Parker before Fuller arrived at the post-game press conference.
"No," Parker said. "She did."
"You've seen it," Fuller said. "You just don't know you've seen it. I've practiced on it. Tonight I just had the chance to use it."
Fuller is very understated, at least with the media, and was in fine form Wednesday – funny, as witnessed above, and seemingly unsure what the fuss was all about – both her overall play and Parker's first-half on the bench.
"Candace brings a lot to our team on the court so personally I knew that I had to step up and give to the team what she usually does," Fuller said.
Fuller was 9-10 for the game – 8-8 in the first half – and scored 17 points in the first half. Summitt left her in to start the second half in place of freshman Angie Bjorklund. Was it because of her hot shooting hand?
"I would like to think it was because I was working hard," Fuller said.
Fuller certainly took advantage of the chance to start, but she said "it doesn't matter (if she starts or not). I've been coming off the bench for three years so I'm used to it."
Summitt had been thinking about tinkering with her starting lineup, but removing Parker wasn't part of her thought process. But Parker's curfew violation in Chicago – the team arrived Monday – forced Summitt to take disciplinary action.
"It's a situation where Candace was late for curfew, totally uncharacteristic, but it happens," Summitt said. "I told her we would sit her out the first half. I wanted to start her but I feel like within our rules we have to be consistent."
Parker spent the first half cheering for her teammates and offering her input in timeouts. She looked jumpy – the desire to play, especially in Chicago, was powerful – but she didn't bring the team down with her disappointment.
"I was really excited to come back home and play in front of my family and friends," Parker said. "Obviously I apologized to my teammates and my coaches and my family and friends and to Chicago in general for not being able to play the first half. Coach is very strict on discipline, and I broke the rules so I suffered the consequences.
"It was cool to be back in Chicago and see everybody in the stands that I played before in high school and junior high. It was just a really good feeling."
When asked if that made the ordeal even more frustrating, Parker answered, "To be honest with you I knew that I had to bring energy on the bench and just be motivational. Timeouts, go up to my teammates and be encouraging. Once the game started I didn't really focus on that."
Tennessee, 11-1, got plenty of contributions. Nicky Anosike scored 17 points. Alexis Hornbuckle added 16 points. Shannon Bobbitt had nine, and Bjorklund was 2-3 behind the arc and scored eight points. Freshmen Vicki Baugh and Sydney Smallbone combined for 14 points, and Alberta Auguste added two points with three assists, including a nifty touch pass that she flipped over her shoulder to Parker on a fast break.
Tennessee scored 100 points for the first time this season and handed DePaul its worst-ever loss in McGrath Arena. The 34-point difference surpassed the 24-point loss to Cincinnati in 2002.
"I thought it was great how our team responded," Summitt said. "I think that we had a lot of people very determined to step up and play and play hard and play well and play together. That's a great sign. Obviously they have tremendous respect for Candace. I'm sure going into the game they were probably feeling a little anxious about being in that situation.
"I think how Candace handled it, too, was very positive for all of them. We just went to work, and everyone had a positive attitude and knew what we had to do, and we got it done. It can be a good thing. For me the last couple of days I've been going through all the what ifs. I guess that's just what coaches do. I thought we came out and played well."
When Tennessee started its run in the first half and pushed a 27-27 tie game out to 36-27, DePaul Coach Doug Bruno called timeout. Parker met her teammates at center court as they came off the floor.
"I'm really proud of them," Parker said. "We knew going in that we needed to get the ball inside and I think Alex and Nicky did a fantastic job going at their bigs and putting the ball in the hoop. When you have Alex shoot nine for 10 and Nicky Anosike shoot six for seven, that's a really good game. I'm really proud of how Alex stepped up and played, and we rebounded the basketball well and played great defense. I was proud going into halftime."
DePaul, 11-2, jumped out to a five-point lead, 8-3, in the game's first two minutes – they hit a three-pointer after winning the opening tip – and were tied with Tennessee, 27-27 with 7:23 left. But then Tennessee went on a 17-2 run and five minutes later, the score was 44-29 with 2:31 left.
The Lady Vols shot 62.5 percent in the first half – they would end up shooting a scorching 60.3 percent for the game – and led at the break, 53-34.
"We talk about the Tennessee run," Bruno said. "I really have to take this game and put it behind us and focus on Pittsburgh (in the Big East opener). We should be programmatically ready to play this game if we're the 15th ranked team in the country. That's a fact. At the same time college basketball does become a function of when you play, where you play, who you play."
The Blue Demons played on the West Coast last weekend in a tournament named after the late Maggie Dixon, a former assistant at DePaul.
"Because we only had one day to prepare, we couldn't throw a lot of schemes in here," Bruno said. "You have to deal with so much more when she's on the floor than when she's not on the floor. (But) without her they beat us by 19. Without Candace we lost by 19 in the first half. Fuller is excellent. They're getting a lot out of Auguste, too. They're getting a lot out of the bench."
Bruno said he had no idea that Parker wasn't starting until just before the game tipped off. He thought she might play the second half, but he was unsure why she was out in the first place. When told it was curfew, Bruno, who recruited Parker, smiled and said, "Chicago's a fun place. She might have tried staying here four years."
The fact that Tennessee ran away with the game in the first half without Parker had Bruno second-guessing the way he schedules before conference play begins.
"Everybody clamors that you play local rivals," Bruno said. "We play our local rivals. We've not put our players in position of having to play against this level of athleticism. We have been able to score too easily against the schedule that we've played. I have to take responsibility for that. Maybe I should make it tougher in those other basketball games.
"Those guys are used to getting easy baskets constantly and now you're playing against the athleticism and the junkyard dog mentality of Alexis Hornbuckle. That's a very special competitor."
Hornbuckle had four rebounds, three steals, six assists and zero turnovers to go with her 16 points, which included hitting 3-4 three-pointers. She also had two highlight reel plays – a block in the first half that brought oohs and aahs from the crowd and a rebound off a teammate's missed three-pointer that she banked it while falling down.
As a team Tennessee had 20 assists. Fuller set her career high on a perfect feed from Baugh, who saw Fuller cutting to the basket. Parker got in the box score initially with a touch pass to Anosike, who converted the layup, and one possession later, fed Parker under the basket.
DePaul came into the game as the hot three-point shooting team, but ended up 5-24 behind the arc. Tennessee went 9-16 from long range.
"I looked at the stat and said, ‘Is that us?' I thought it was on the wrong side," Summitt said. "We shared the ball well, had really good ball movement. We got some good open looks, and we just knocked down our shots. I was really pleased to see our efficiency where it was. I think that correlation there is a result of shot selection. We had great shot selection, which allowed us to shoot a better percentage than we have in the past."
DePaul had four players in double figures – Natasha Williams, Allie Quigley and Deirdre Naughton each scored 13 points, and China Threatt added 12 off the bench – but the Blue Demons shot 33.3 percent from the field overall and 20.8 percent from behind the arc.
"We were just skittishly excited and blew shots that these guys make all the time," Bruno said. "We're going to have to get that corrected quickly."
Quigley, a 48.1 percent shooter from the field, was 4-16 in this game.
"I think we were kind of excited and hurried a lot of shots," Quigley said. "The excitement just kind of took over. It wasn't just all excitement. They're great defenders. They're all long and athletic. That actually had a lot to do with it, too."
Tennessee surrendered a few open threes – namely to start each half – but the Lady Vols also contested most of them and forced some bad shots. Defense was a point of emphasis coming into the game, as was rebounding. Tennessee won that battle, 47-33, and despite shooting 60.3 percent, still had 13 offensive boards.
Tennessee had 17 second-chance points and 16 points off of 15 DePaul turnovers.
"You can't give easy points to Tennessee off your turnovers," Bruno said. "You can't give easy points to Tennessee off the second-shot factor. That's a given. We didn't have a lot of turnovers, but we were impetuous in our shot selection. That's more me not forcing them to understand shot selection against lesser opponents (in earlier games this season). That impetuous quick shooting led to their running game. They pounded it inside, and we had not a lot of defensive answers."
Tennessee also took care of the ball. The Lady Vols only had five turnovers in the first half. They finished with 18 but subtract the charging fouls – four against Parker in the second half and one against Bobbitt – and that's just eight in the second half.
"It was my fault," Parker said.
"Four charges right here," Summitt said with a smile. "Out of control."
"I would have fouled out if I played the first half," Parker said as both she and Summitt laughed.
"I don't mind those so much," Summitt said. "That just means we're playing aggressive basketball. Lazy passes and things that can be controlled in that regard are obviously what you look at, and I thought we were pretty efficient, certainly very efficient in the first half."
When Summitt was asked why she played DePaul – this is Tennessee's 17th consecutive win the series – she noted how close the game was the last time the Lady Vols came to Chicago in 2003.
"The last time we were here we won in overtime," Summitt said. "We knew coming in it was going to be a challenge. They shoot the three-ball, and they've had great success with it. We challenged our defense. One of the main reasons is it has been a great series. Doug does a great job, and I have tremendous respect for him.
"It's a great place to come. I love the city. I haven't gotten to do any shopping so maybe I can shop (Thursday) now that I'll be in a good mood. And to bring Candace back. I do this for all the players we recruit – we try to go back to their home state and close to their hometown."
Parker had her own cheering section of more than 60 family members and friends. Many of them were wearing orange T-shirts that had "CP3" on the front and a photo of Parker as a 2-year-old toddler with a basketball in hand. The back of the shirt had her number and the wearer's connection to Parker. In Sara Parker's case, it said "Mama."
"I think she'll love it because that's her – backwards hat, pink pants and a pink shirt, she's all girl, but she's got the cap turned backwards, and she's playing ball," Sara Parker said.
"I thought those were cute," Candace said. "I thought it was a cool idea. She surprised me with that."
"She was in the driveway playing basketball with her brothers," Sara said. "She had her baseball cap on backwards, and her basketball, and she was convinced she could play so she was out there with them playing. I told her when she came here to play I was going to wear a T-shirt with her picture on it. She didn't believe me."
Sara Parker had wanted her daughter to pick Tennessee when she was a high school All-American being courted by top programs across the country.
"When you sit and down and look at it, I think she had an opportunity to be very special, and I think the players that she was joining had a chance to be very special," Sara Parker said. "I think it takes a special staff that has experience balancing that talent year in and year out, teaching them how to be good teammates, how to play with one another, how to support one another. I think you have to have some experience to do that. Pat and her staff have a chance to teach her some things about life."
That turned out to include the consequences of actions, even at a player's homecoming game. Summitt clearly didn't want to discipline Parker under these circumstances, but she also had no choice, because the coach has always been consistent when players run afoul of curfew.
"I respect Candace tremendously, and I appreciate how she handled it," Summitt said. "She went in and did a great job, and she's a special player and a special person, and I'm glad people here got to see her perform in the second half."
Parker's mother sat behind the Tennessee bench and cheered loudly – as did the entire section – when Parker walked onto the floor in the second half.
Parker filled up the box score in just 19 minutes of play with 17 points, five rebounds, five steals and three assists.
"I'm more proud of Candace the young woman than the basketball player," Sara Parker said. "I think she's able to balance all of the things that she's asked to do, and I think she does it very gracefully, and I think that's because she's such a caring person. She genuinely cares about her teammates."
"Chicago is a special place," Candace Parker said. "I grew up here. It's home, and it will always be that. I'm just happy to back."