Lady Vols bring it

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The Lady Vols will practice Friday in South Bend after taking off Thursday in Chicago following a dominating win over DePaul. Pat Summitt said after that game that she intended to do some shopping now that she was in a good mood. DePaul Coach Doug Bruno said he hadn't seen Tennessee play like it was the defending champions – until UT lined up against his Blue Demons.

Pat Summitt's mood had soured after a loss to Stanford before Christmas, and she had a lengthy period of time to stew over it. Then, after the team arrived in Chicago, Candace Parker missed curfew on New Year's Eve, and Summitt had to discipline a player before her homecoming game.

Dozens of family members and friends watched Parker sit on the bench in the first half as punishment for breaking a team rule. But the way Parker handled it brought plaudits post-game. She was active on the bench and cheered for her teammates. She walked onto the court to high-five and greet the starters as they were introduced.

At a time when Parker likely wanted to shrink from public view, she recognized a responsibility to face what she did and started her remarks to the press with apologies to her coaches, team, family, friends and the city of Chicago.

It was a minor violation, but still one that ran afoul of Summitt's unbreakable rules. Summitt said after the game that she wanted to start Parker in her hometown, but every player must be held to the same disciplinary standard. It was a mistake – Parker lost track of time – but Summitt has never let an excuse – whether good or bad – erase what happened.

Parker's mother, Sara Parker, knew of the disciplinary action beforehand, which made her remarks in interview before the game even more instructive. She noted how proud she was of her daughter as a person, and she said part of the reason she wanted Candace to come to Tennessee was because she would learn life lessons off the court.

Sara Parker was swarmed by media before the game started – both broadcast and print – and was asked about her daughter becoming the face of the sport. She cited the responsibility that Candace carries, not her talent.

"I think that she and this generation have a huge responsibility to carry forward what the pioneers of the game have done because every year there's opposition to Title IX, so they have to always take it serious and always be mindful of what's best for the sport," Sara Parker said.

When asked if her daughter could change the game, Sara Parker mentioned the class Candace entered college with 3.5 years ago.

"I think the class of 2004 was a phenomenal class so I think the class will be phenomenal," Sara Parker said.

Candace Parker arrived at Tennessee in the fall of 2004 and was immediately pulled off the basketball court because of knee swelling. That led to major surgery and a season-long quest to rehab in time to play as a freshman, but that quest was aborted in February of 2005 when her knee wouldn't respond as it needed to in practice.

Sara Parker visited her daughter frequently that season and is still astounded at how far Candace has come.

"I imagined that the team would be successful, and that they would work hard and they would jell," Sara Parker said. "I didn't imagine that she would have the success that she would have at all the different levels."

Sara Parker voiced what many Tennessee fans likely were thinking. She wondered why DePaul chose to play Wednesday's game – a 102-68 win for the Lady Vols – at tiny McGrath Arena, instead of Allstate Arena, where the Blue Demons play some games.

"I really am disappointed that they didn't move it to Allstate," Sara Parker said. "They could have made a lot of money, and it would have been a great opportunity for a lot of people to come to the game and not just see Tennessee but to see DePaul, too. If you get five or 10 fans that fall in love with the game then you've got them for life."

Candace Parker has been a fan for life. It started for the 21 year old when she was a toddler playing basketball with her two older brothers in the family's driveway. A photo of her holding the ball while wearing a backwards ball cap and pink pants and shirt was made into a T-shirt and worn by her considerable cheering section.

Candace grew into a 6'5 versatile forward – Sara Parker said her daughter entered this world at a lengthy 24 inches – who is the reigning Wade Trophy winner and Wooden Player of the Year.

On Wednesday she watched fellow redshirt junior Alex Fuller start in her place for one half. Parker has missed one start in her Tennessee career, and that was against Mississippi State last season when she was sick. Fuller scored a career-high 19 points – with 17 coming in the first half – and Parker added 17 in the second half. During the first half, Parker shouted encouragement and complimented Fuller on a post move.

The two attended the post-game press conference together with Fuller delivering answers wit her dry wit – about her hook shot: "You've seen it. You just don't know you've seen it." – and Parker fielding yet more questions about the WNBA.

Parker was asked if she would like to play for the Chicago Sky. A fan in the stands held up a sign that said: "CP3 would look good in Sky blue."

Parker cleared her throat – she has dealt with these questions for two years – and said, "When that door opens and I make that decision, it would be a great place to play. Chicago, I love it. I was ecstatic when the Sky came to Chicago and got a WNBA team."

Is she the future of the game?

"Our 2004 class as a whole has made an impact and will continue to make an impact," Parker said. "I would say I hope we would leave the game better than we came to it. Players like myself, like Alex, like Tasha Humphrey, are able to step away from the basket with size and play the face-up game. I think a lot of players are more athletic and able to do more things and play above the rim."

DePaul Coach Doug Bruno had plenty to say about Tennessee after the game.

"Tennessee played a signature Tennessee game," Bruno said. "DePaul played a signature Cactus League exhibition game. We must be ready for opening day on Sunday. We have to learn and get better and get prepared for a very good Pittsburgh team.

"If we're going to allege to ourselves that we're the best basketball team in DePaul history, then we must be able to counter the physicality. That's what signature Tennessee is. They're going to always be big. They're always going to be the best athletes and basketball players in the country. They're always going to pound it inside as they did on us in the first half. They're always going to be ferocious offensive rebounders. If you want to play on this stage, you can't just say, ‘They're too big.' You have to compete."

The storylines were Fuller's start and Parker's delay, but post player Nicky Anosike also helped fill the early void. She nearly had a double-double with 17 points and nine rebounds. She also played defense inside and on the perimeter when Tennessee needed her to track one of DePaul's many three-point shooters across the court.

"Nicky came out strong for us," Summitt said. "She's willing to do a lot of dirty work. She works hard. She obviously works the glass. She really played with great intensity and competitiveness throughout the game. She's a player that makes a big difference in just her physical presence. From a defensive standpoint, it's very significant."

Bruno seemed ready to put this game behind him – he has the Big East opener to prepare for this Sunday – but he did note that playing Tennessee after a loss was a rather intractable position for the other team.

"Don't forget Tennessee lost the last basketball game and spent 11 days in coach's doghouse," Bruno said. "I trust they got a couple of days off for Christmas, maybe not."

Bruno was kidding when he said that, and Summitt actually allowed the team four days off. She reassembled her players Dec. 27, and they practiced for four days in Knoxville, took a day off to travel, and then held a short session Tuesday before the DePaul game. Add in the Wednesday shoot-around, and Tennessee had six days on the court between games under the tutelage of Summitt and her staff.

"You're going to get their attention after losing a game to Stanford as they did," Bruno said.

Summitt's primary concern was her team's lack of intensity for 40 minutes in the first 11 games of the season.

"I think this team responded after coming off a loss at Stanford," Summitt said. "We had some great workouts, and they took ownership. Our biggest challenge that we presented to them was to be a 40-minute team. I think at times we played in spurts, and (Wednesday) I thought we showed great consistency and discipline on both ends of the floor."

Bruno had watched enough film on Tennessee to notice some deficiencies that he knew Summitt would not like.

"I have a hard enough time coaching our own team, but you could see that Tennessee's early games, they were not The Return of the Champs," Bruno said. "They were very … I could see slippage in Tennessee from last March and so I'm sure Coach could, too, and I'm sure that was severely addressed."

Summitt addressed it in an assortment of ways – team meetings, one practice in which she was silent and repetitive drill work. She wants the team to see what she sees and what Bruno saw – slippage, as he put it.

"I think the players will tell you that they feel like they are motivated, but with every team that has won a championship it has been a little more difficult in terms of the motivation factor," Summitt said. "I think they're human and sometimes when you come off that championship and you return as many players as we returned, you feel good about yourselves, which is great, you have a lot of confidence, but sometimes you don't have as great a sense of urgency.

"As a coaching staff I think sometimes they look at us like, ‘What are you talking about?' But having gone through it a number of times, it's typically what happens. I just want them to dial it up. I think great habits are hard to break. I want them to have a great habit of playing possession basketball and trying to be efficient for 40 minutes."

Last season Parker told the media not to put her name on the list of great ones at Tennessee like Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings until she hung a banner in Thompson-Boling Arena. Summitt said after the season that she respected Parker for putting that kind of pressure on herself. She also noted that a player willing to publicly acknowledge such is more likely to achieve it.

This season Parker is telling the media that two titles set a team apart from others.

"There's a lot of teams in history that have won one championship," Parker said. "I think sometimes people can say, ‘Oh, they won that because they were lucky,' or ‘They stumbled on that championship.' To us, we don't want to leave any doubt that we deserved the national championship. You can't stumble on two championships.

"That's our big thing this year. We barely mention national championship, but that's in the back of our mind, because we try to take every day one at a time."

The player sitting with Parker after the game Wednesday should play a big role in any repeat. Fuller took full advantage of her opportunity – 9-10 from the field, seven rebounds, two assists and one steal. She even was looking out for Sydney Smallbone in warmups before the second half. The freshman lofted a jump shot and a stray ball rolled toward her. Fuller knocked the ball away before Smallbone landed on it.

The player her teammates called "Sunshine" because of her even keel and sweet disposition said 2008 is a new season for the Lady Vols.

"We're trying to forget everything that happened in '07," Fuller said. "We have some different goals as a team. We met several times as a team and with the coaching staff. We just knew we had to stay together and play a 40-minute game. I think this is one of our first games that we actually played 40 minutes."


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