Special player, special coach

Pat Summitt and Candace Parker stood at center court in Nashville two weeks ago and held a private conversation amid a public celebration. The head coach gripped the shoulder of the All-American forward – who wore a championship SEC T-shirt and ball cap – and basically told her thank you. Summitt also told her to go get a piece of the net. Parker complied, but it's another net that she craves.

"She said she was really proud of how I stepped up my game and how postseason is what I play for," Candace Parker said. "I was telling her I didn't want to cut down the nets because it's not the same as the NCAA championship. I got a little piece. Tiny. I gave it to my mom."

Should Tennessee win a national title in Tampa, Parker won't have to be told to climb the ladder, and she will snip a lot more nylon than the small strand she took in the Sommet Center.

"I'm going to get a big old piece," Parker said.

That process begins Sunday when Tennessee, 30-2, takes on Oral Roberts, 19-12, in West Lafayette, Ind., in the first round of NCAA play. The Lady Vols will hold their open practice at 5 p.m. Saturday at Mackey Arena and also meet with the media.

Parker had said all season that the Lady Vols would get it done in crunch time, and she has put the pressure on herself to deliver, much as she did last season when she didn't want the media and the fans to mention her name with Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings until she had hung a banner in the rafters.

Pat Summitt has said Parker is the best all-around player that she has ever coached or seen play and on that Sunday evening nearly two weeks ago in Nashville after Tennessee beat LSU to win the tourney title, Summitt wanted to make sure Parker knew what she meant to the coach.

"I was telling her what I great job I thought she had done," Summitt said. "I had yelled at her really hard a couple of times. I told her I almost felt guilty, and she said, ‘No, it was good.' "

Perhaps Summitt's angst was justified in this case. Parker played the entire 40 minutes in the 61-55 win. She scored 28 points and was named the MVP. With Nicky Anosike in foul trouble, Parker had to both guard the 6'6 Sylvia Fowles for long stretches of time and carry the offensive load on the other end until Shannon Bobbitt got loose for some three-pointers.

After one timeout in the second half Summitt gave Parker an earful and then some as the clearly exhausted forward retook the floor. The one-sided conversation was about post defense.

"I think I was too tired to react," Parker said with a smile. "I'm even keeled. I don't really get rattled."

Parker also had Anosike in her ear with a supportive but clear directive: Take over.

"I think she responds to what I tell her more than what anyone else says to her just because she knows that I care about her success and how good she does," Anosike said. "I'm only trying to help her, and she knows that I'm not trying to just say things just to say them.

"I really mean them, and she knows that I'm working hard right with her and I've got her back no matter what. Even if she's doing something wrong I'm still behind her."

Parker had six rebounds in that game – Anosike was relentless on the glass with 11 boards – so she had one more person in her ear that night.

"I'll give you a tidbit of how I grew up," Parker said by way of explaining how she handles Summitt's expectations and those of her teammates. "My father, who's very proud of me, after that LSU game first he kissed me on the forehead and said, ‘Congratulations on the win.' The second thing he said is, ‘Why didn't you rebound?'

"And then (last Monday) he called me and told me how proud he was of me in the SEC Tournament after reflection. That's just how it is. That's how I've grown up, and I wouldn't have it any other way. That's why I'm able to do the things I do because it's a constant wanting to do better, wanting to do more.

"I know Coach is going to be hard on me and honestly I play better that way."

Summitt said the Lady Vols won in Nashville for a simple reason: It was the players' idea.

"They played hard-nosed," Summitt said. "They had a lot of great hustle plays. The huddles they had, they had tight huddles.

"You can learn a lot about a team by how quickly they get in a huddle. If they're dragging around there's no sense of urgency, but they definitely had a sense of urgency and it was reflected in not only their play, but their communication and their huddles and their communication on the bench. They were into that game."

Parker headed to the ladder as Summitt directed and got her snippet of net. When it was Summitt's turn, her players steadied her and the ladder. Parker helped Summitt safely down.

"Because she's my coach and I love her to death," Parker said. "She's a special person. Everybody was helping her down. We really care a lot about Coach, because she's done a lot for us and will continue to be there in the future for us."

Summitt was coaching with a shoulder injury. The day before she left for Nashville she had knocked a raccoon off her deck that was menacing her beloved yellow lab, Sally Sue Summitt. The coach dislocated her right shoulder and had to call the team physician to have the shoulder put back into place.

"I guess they like me enough they want me to finish out the season," Summitt said.

For Parker there is only one acceptable finish line – a national title in Tampa.


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