Lady Vols bound for Tampa

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – The pain was shooting through Candace Parker's shoulder, but it was a dagger shot by Alexis Hornbuckle that sunk Texas A&M and propelled the Lady Vols to the program's 18th Final Four with a 53-45 win Tuesday. Parker scored 26 points – almost half of her team's total – despite twice dislocating her left shoulder.

Tennessee, 34-2, needed every point from Candace Parker and a 25-footer from Alexis Hornbuckle with two seconds on the shot clock and 50 seconds left in the game to secure the win over Texas A&M, 29-8, which was playing in its first regional final and showed no signs of backing down from the Lady Vols.

"If they were doubting themselves, they didn't show that at all," Hornbuckle said. "They're a great team, and they showed no quit at all."

The Aggies had the lead, 42-37, with 6:19 left to play, and the support of A&M fans among the 9,341 in attendance at the Ford Center, which was about evenly split between maroon and orange. But Parker hit a layup, Shannon Bobbitt drained two free throws, and Parker hit two more from the line to give the Lady Vols a 43-42 lead with 3:44 left in the game.

"I don't think we lost it; I think Tennessee won it down the stretch," Texas A&M Coach Gary Blair said. "They made the plays, the defensive plays and the offensive plays, and knocked down a couple of free throws, and that was it."

Texas A&M was led by Takia Starks with 12 points, A'Quonesia Franklin with 11 and Danielle Gant with 10. Starks and Franklin made the Oklahoma City Regional All-Tournament team.

Parker was named the Most Outstanding Player of the regional, and Hornbuckle made the all-tourney team, which was rounded out by Duke's Chante Black.

Hornbuckle had 14 points on 5-10 shooting – none bigger than her second three-pointer – and five rebounds, and Bobbitt added nine points. Nicky Anosike had eight rebounds and Alberta Auguste grabbed seven to account for nearly half of Tennessee's 31 boards.

"Neither team can look back at one particular play that just made it, because even if Hornbuckle would have missed that shot from 40 feet, Batman could have come in and got the rebound and dunked on us," Blair said.

"Batman" referred to Parker, who did swoop all over the Aggies in the first half with 18 points on 9-12 shooting. She scored on turnarounds, fadeaways, jumpers and layups.

Hornbuckle's three assists in the first half were all on entry passes to Parker under the basket. She left her defender flat-footed one time with a fake to the perimeter and a spin back to the basket.

But with 3:50 left in the first half, Parker dislocated her shoulder on a defensive play in which she swiped the ball but had her left shoulder wrenched as she rotated. Parker managed to dribble down court with her left shoulder out as she hunted for a teammate to avoid a turnover.

"I was just trying to find somebody to give the ball to," Parker said. "Alexis is running after me trying to get it, and I was trying to find somebody to give it, too."

Parker tried to get the shoulder back in herself but left the game and went to the locker room with Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols assistant athletics director for sports medicine.

She returned to the bench to a standing ovation and reentered the game with 2:39 left in the first half. But as Parker reached for the ball on defense the shoulder once again popped out, and Parker left for the locker room with 44 seconds left.

The Lady Vols had three turnovers in that final stretch of two-and-a-half minutes and led by just two points, 29-27, at halftime. Tennessee shot 66.7 percent in the first half but had 12 turnovers against a stifling Aggie defense. Texas A&M shot 40.7 percent overall and hit 5-10 from behind the arc before the break.

When the second half started, Parker was still in the locker room, and Alex Fuller moved into the starting lineup in her place.

When Anosike was asked what the team said in the huddle before taking the floor, Anosike couldn't remember.

"Nicky was doing all the taking; I don't know how she doesn't remember," Hornbuckle said. "Basically she looked all of us in the eyes and said, ‘We're not going home. And the only way we can do this is with defense, and we have to stay positive,' and everyone responded well."

The game became a defensive showdown and a battle for rebounds. A&M managed just 18 second-half points. Tennessee countered with 24.

"For the diehard out there, you might have wanted offense," Blair said. "But for the basketball purists out there, it was great defense from both teams. Their perimeter defense was a lot better than we expected, and they – Bobbitt in the first half controlled their defense.

"The second half we did a better job of sometimes running our stuff, but we couldn't score! We scored six baskets; they scored five. Is that good for women's basketball? Damn straight, if you can appreciate defense, but you have to appreciate that."

Tennessee hit 12-16 free throws for the game, and 6-7 in the final two minutes – two each by Hornbuckle and Bobbitt and one by Parker – to secure the win.

Parker reentered the game in the second half at the 10:39 mark with her left shoulder in a protective sleeve like the one Auguste has to wear because of a loose shoulder. The back-up sleeve was not in the locker room and Jimmy Delaney, the director of marketing for the Lady Vols, found it in a laundry bag on one of the team's two buses in what had been a frenzied search by staff members.

Parker came to the bench after about six minutes had expired in the first half, and Pat Summitt reinserted the All-American a few minutes later.

"Everything was positive," Auguste said. "The coaches were positive. We were positive. We told her to take her time. Don't rush back into the game. We had her back."

"I just remember sitting on the bench, watching them play and just thinking to myself if I got out there again then I was going to play as hard as I could and not think about my shoulder and my situation, because I didn't want this to be the last time that we played together," Parker said.

"We know she is a tough soldier, so we knew that she would be back," Hornbuckle said. "She's able to play through pain, and we never doubted her return."

Tennessee needed all of Parker's eight points in the final 10 minutes – Hornbuckle's fourth assist came on an alley oop feed to Parker, who hit the layup – but it was Hornbuckle's three that sealed the win as Tennessee was clinging to a two-point lead.

The ball had gone to Parker, but she lost the handle in the lane and managed to funnel the ball to Hornbuckle, who caught and shot in one smooth motion. The ball hit nothing but net, and Hornbuckle let out a yell that might have been heard back home in the little town of Duncan, West Virginia.

Her mother, Quan Hornbuckle, had been watching her daughter from the stands. She wasn't surprised when the shot dropped.

"I just knew the last few minutes of the game her whole demeanor was different," Quan Hornbuckle said. "I could tell she was more relaxed and when I see that demeanor then I know she's going to be OK."

How proud was mama of daughter?

"I don't even know if I could put it into words actually," Quan Hornbuckle said. "We're extremely proud. We've always been proud of what she's accomplished. It's no small feat and to see a girl from little old West, by God, Virginia accomplish the things that she has been able to accomplish at Tennessee, it's been a blessing to see that."

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick exploded off the bench when the shot went through the basket.

"I know I can still jump," said Warlick, a former Tennessee player. "It was huge. Didn't hesitate. I was happy for her because she played so hard. It was huge."

Sophomore Cait McMahan, who is taking a redshirt year to recover from knee surgery, also jumped off the bench.

"I don't care if I was on crutches," said McMahan, who is not on crutches, of her spontaneous and unstoppable celebratory leap. "I knew it was going in when she shot it. She was giving everything she's got through the whole game, and when you do that, you've got to expect good things.

"I saw her shoot it. I didn't even look at it. That's how confident I am in Lex."

"I haven't hit a shot that big in my career yet," said Hornbuckle, who knew the shot clock was expiring so she didn't have time to put the ball on the floor. "When I let it go, honestly, I didn't think I was going to miss it, but I'm not going to sit here and say I knew it was in. I was going to give it a chance to go in. I stayed with my follow-through and just stayed with the ball."

The shot was lofted directly in front of Summitt, who knew how far away from the basket Hornbuckle was stationed. Summitt hoped the ball would at least draw iron – otherwise it would be a shot clock violation – to allow for an offensive board.

"I had no idea that shot was going to go in," Summitt said. "I was just hoping it would hit the rim so we would have a chance to rebound and put it back. She released it, in my view of it I thought it could go in, but it wasn't the shot I was counting on."

Angie Bjorklund, who had two points and a steal in 15 minutes of play in her first regional final, also had a good view of the shot from the bench.

"It was right there," said Bjorklund, who has hit 68 three-pointers at Tennessee this season and knows a sweet shot when she sees one. "Oh, my gosh! That was huge for us. Along with free throws that was nails in the coffin."

The Aggies had been hitting from long range to open the game with five three-pointers in the first half compared to one for Tennessee, which also came from Hornbuckle. Bobbitt hit a three-pointer in the second half, and that was the extent of the Lady Vols' long-range game. The Aggies hit just one more three-pointer in the second half – they finished 6-19 for the game – as Tennessee's defense rose to the challenge.

As the Lady Vols struggled offensively, the coaching staff decided to make it tougher on Texas A&M, too.

"We put our heads together as a coaching staff and decided that we would extend our defense a little bit more and try and take time off the clock, more of a delay-and-disrupt type of pressure in the three-quarter (part of the court)," Summitt said.

Summitt had also directed Hornbuckle to get to the rim, which she did, but the senior guard kept missing layups.

"She got frustrated, so I felt more like a cheerleader tonight at times than a coach, but that's OK," Summitt said. "If that works, that works."

The whiteboard inside the Lady Vols' locker room after the game reminded the team to not be satisfied, and the message was delivered by Summitt afterwards.

"See that board right there," Bjorklund said pointing to it. " ‘Still not satisfied.' We put that up on the board. Coach came in here and said she's proud of us and we're going to enjoy the victory, and we'll start working."

Tennessee will next play LSU in the semifinal at the Final Four in Tampa on Sunday. It will be the third matchup between the two SEC teams – Tennessee lost in the regular season and won in the conference tourney.

The team returned to Knoxville by charter flight after the game and Summitt will take the day off from the practice floor Wednesday as two starters, Anosike and Bobbitt, played 38 minutes and Hornbuckle went for 37.

Parker ended up playing 30 minutes and will need further evaluation of her left shoulder before the team leaves later this week for Tampa.

The Lady Vols played there in November against Oklahoma in a doubleheader with Duke-South Florida, and Tennessee has managed to return there in April. The players had said before they left Tampa last fall that what they really wanted was to come back.

"We're going back to Tampa," Auguste said. "We're going back for a reason and that's to go get that national championship, but first we've got LSU. We're going to take it one day at a time and one game at a time. We know we've got a challenge ahead of us."

The Final Four – and a repeat title – has been Tennessee's goal since preseason, and that was clear during the post-game ceremony in Oklahoma City. Auguste was the only one to climb the ladder, and she snipped the entire net and pulled it from the rim.

"We just wanted to get it down," Auguste said. "We want the championship net."

Tennessee is led by five players in the starting lineup who will graduate in May. Just before Parker walked to the free throw line in the closing seconds of the game, the five players huddled in the backcourt for a group hug.

"We told each other we loved each other," Auguste said. "We said, ‘I love you.' I'm looking at them like, ‘OK, I love you, too.' We were just excited."

"We definitely want to tell each other, ‘Great job,' and ‘Way to get through it,' " Bobbitt said. "We had some tough stretches, and we were just happy that we stuck with it and we competed."

The team used huddles throughout the game to stay focused in what was a grueling and physical contest. The officials allowed a lot of contact, especially inside, when players tried to get to the basket.

Neither team attempted a free throw in the first half. The first free throw of the game came from A&M's Franklin at the 9:51 mark of the second half. Tennessee's first attempt came at the 7:06 mark by Parker.

We dug in deep," Auguste said. "We always had a huddle, positive energy, positive feedback from each other. We didn't want to go back to Knoxville not satisfied. We told each other as seniors this is our time, and we're not going to give it up."

THE FRANCHISE: Candace Parker's shoulder will be examined in detail Wednesday after the team returns to Knoxville to ensure that it is structurally OK.

The initial tests were positive, according to Jenny Moshak, but the medical staff wants to be sure in order to determine the best course of recovery.

After the shoulder was back in place in the locker room, Moshak tested mobility and strength.

"Now we've got to do some diagnostic testing, make sure we're dealing with what we think we're dealing with. Then we'll continue with the rehab. We've got to do the diagnostic testing and just make sure we know what we're dealing with. We think we know, but we've got to make sure all the structures are intact."

Parker's right shoulder has been injured since preseason when she sustained a subluxation in practice in October. The left shoulder is now on the injured list, too.

"She had her hand on the ball and then the force, it put her into a precarious situation," Moshak said. "It can do some structural damage and that's why we'll do the diagnostic testing to see.

The bottom line is that if there isn't any, we know how to rehab it. We'll rock and roll. We'll spend a heck of a lot of quality time together and get her back on the floor. I don't think you can ever guarantee it won't happen again. The bottom line is that the shoulder is made for mobility versus stability so you give on that aspect of it. Is she more susceptible? Yes."

Parker lauded the work of Moshak in the post-game press conference.

"Jenny Moshak is the best trainer in the world," Parker said.

After Parker dislocated the shoulder she managed to maintain control of the ball and continue dribbling down court towards her basket. Her mother, Sara Parker, was in the stands and saw her daughter dribbling away from her. Once Parker got the ball to Hornbuckle, she headed to her bench.

"I could see that it was hurting her, but I couldn't see how far out it was until she started walking the other way," Sara Parker said. "Then I just knew that for her to pull up dribble and stop that it had to be very, very painful because she will go right on unless she can't so for her to do that I knew that it was very painful for her."

Sara Parker had no doubt that her daughter would play, if she were cleared by Moshak.

"I knew if there was any way possible, if she had to play with one arm, she was going to come out there and try to do the best that she can do," Sara Parker said. "She has an extremely high tolerance for pain, which is good and bad. I knew if there was any way possible she was going to be out there."

Pat Summitt was awaiting the word from Moshak that Parker could return.

"When I saw the sleeve I felt better," Summitt said, "But I had to hear from Jenny. Candace, I knew the answer she would give me, but I asked Jenny, and she felt like that she could go."

Summitt also was experiencing some sympathy pain. The coach dislocated her right shoulder a month ago knocking a raccoon off her back deck. The raccoon was menacing Summitt's yellow lab. Summitt also recalled that her shoulder went back in with the help of the team physician, so maybe Parker would be OK.

"I thought, at my age, if I can come back, she'll be back," Summitt said. "It was interesting because that flashed through my head, she'll be back. … What bothered me was when it went out the second time. That really scared me and I thought, ‘Well, she may be finished for the game.' "

At that point Summitt noted how the team responded.

"I can't say enough about Nicky Anosike," Summitt said. "When you face adversity or when the game is tight, she's just got a warrior's mentality. She just fights to the end, and she challenges everyone on the court to step up."

Summitt couldn't shake loose of her concern for Parker. She also was peeved that the protective sleeve wasn't proving difficult to find.

"I think they were under the bus, going through laundry to find the sleeve and I'm like about to have a fit as to why we don't have it right there, but at any rate when I saw the sleeve on her I felt like she would have the protection she needed," Summitt said.

Summitt also was thinking about her tough Parker was because she knows firsthand the pain of a dislocated shoulder.

"Obviously she's a lot stronger than Coach Summitt," the coach said.

Moshak was also in awe of her patient.

"She's amazing," Moshak said. "She's absolutely amazing. She was smart about how she used that arm pretty much the whole second half. But the bottom line is that she's amazing."

Parker's teammates noted her toughness.

"I'm proud of her," Shannon Bobbitt said. "She was a soldier to come back in the game and still compete and be aggressive."

"It shows her true character that she has a lot of heart and she doesn't have quit in her," Alberta Auguste said.

Angie Bjorklund watched as Parker winced and tried to get the shoulder back into place.

"It was hanging there," Bjorklund said. "It kind of freaked me out at first. She's a warrior. The second time she did it she was like, ‘Get it in. I'm going back in.' That's one of the reasons she's such a great player. She's here to win and she's fighting."

"You could tell by her facial expressions that she was hurt," Cait McMahan said. "That just takes a lot of guts and a lot of will. You do that, that's saying you want to win a championship."

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