"Last game against Texas A&M, Candace screamed after me, ‘Nicky, you've got to get stops,' " Anosike said. "I've never had anyone yell back at me; I'm usually the one yelling. It was weird, but it really did touch me when she came up to me.
"I feel the same thing in (Sunday's) game. She held it down for us the whole season, and it's time for the rest of us to step up and take the pressure off of her."
Tennessee, 34-2, takes on LSU, 31-5, in an SEC showdown in the second semifinal. Connecticut, 36-1, and Stanford, 34-3, square off at 7 p.m. in the first semifinal. The winners will play Tuesday evening at 8:30 p.m. for the national title. The games will be televised on ESPN.
Parker will play Sunday night – tipoff is approximately 9:30 p.m. Eastern at The St. Pete Times Forum – with her shoulder in a brace. She tested the shoulder in practice Thursday and went through Friday's scouting report session and Saturday's open session at the Forum.
Parker has experience with coming back from injury, which has a psychological, as well as physical component, for an athlete.
"I told myself in the first practice I was going to go out there and use my left as much as possible. Just feel it out," Parker said.
Pat Summitt walked into Pratt Pavilion back home in Knoxville and saw Parker going to the basket from the left.
"First time Candace has been back on the floor, and she comes in shooting left-handed layups," Summitt said. "I said, ‘Candace, stick with the right hand for now.' But that's Candace. I'm sure she wanted to test it out and see how she felt."
That was precisely what Parker had in mind.
"Coach wasn't too happy with that, but that's what I was going to do because I know teams are going to force me left, and I'm going to go left," Parker said. "I don't feel any restrictions. Obviously Texas A&M was physical (and she returned to the game). I don't see any problem defensively. I'm just going to be ready to go."
There is the possibility that the shoulder could pop loose again, and Parker said she would listen to Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine, for advice on when or whether or not to return. She convinced Moshak to let her back in against Texas A&M and promptly dislocated the shoulder again.
"Go with what Jenny says," Parker said. "I kind of fast-talked her the first dislocation and I think that's why I got dislocated again. I've learned to listen. I've learned my lesson."
Parker's teammates also know that they have to elevate their games and take some pressure off Parker. They kept the Lady Vols in the game against Texas A&M – Summitt said it was the most physical game she had seen all season – while Parker recovered in the locker room.
"We definitely feel like we need to pick her up and reassure her that she's not out there alone," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "She doesn't have to feel like, ‘OK, my shoulder may or may not be 100 percent and I still am counted on to do this, this and this.' We're going to pick her up as a team and get right behind her and show her that we came here to produce the best game that we've ever played in this Final Four."
The players have already talked among themselves of what they need to do Sunday. The gist of those conversations was to carry Parker, who has toted the team on many occasions.
"That's what a team does," Anosike said. "Candace has carried us for the three years that she's played and she's asking us to help her out for two games, and I don't think that is much to ask at all."
Tennessee won the last matchup with LSU, 61-55, in the SEC tourney final. Parker had 28 points. Anosike had 11 rebounds but spent much of the second half in foul trouble. That left Parker to guard the 6'6 Sylvia Fowles for much of the game.
"I'm definitely going to be careful and play a smart game," Anosike said. "I know in the Final Four there's little room for error so I am definitely going to play a smart game."
Alberta Auguste, who was making her first postseason start against LSU, had eight points and played outstanding defense. Auguste said she would draw on that experience.
"When she's not injured we're still out there for a reason and that's to help her out," Auguste said. "We know she's going to need us, and we're going to need her even more, but we have to count on each other as a whole. We know we need to step up at every position.
"The SEC Tournament I didn't think about anything the whole game. I just went out there and played. I plan on doing the same thing. I don't like attention. I don't like people to be in my ear. I tend to stay within myself and not think about anything."
Freshman Vicki Baugh had a breakout game against LSU with her defense inside and two free throws down the stretch to seal the win. Baugh entered the game after Anosike fouled out.
"It always builds more confidence knowing how I did against a team," Baugh said. "And if I do well I am definitely going to feel better about myself. We can't just fully depend on her so we definitely have to come together as a team and be ready to play."
Baugh struggled in the regional final against Texas A&M after playing well in the first two tourney games.
"Baugh didn't have a good regional," Summitt said. "She started playing like a freshman. It happens a lot."
Baugh picked up two quick fouls and that immediately took her out of her game – figuratively and literally.
"That's a mistake on my part," Baugh said. "I need to learn how to play smarter and realize that I can't just do the things I used to be able to do in high school. It definitely takes me out of the game because I'm in foul trouble and literally I'm getting pulled out. I'm going to have to play smart, stay out of foul trouble and get my game going."
Another freshman, Angie Bjorklund, had a breakout game defensively. Bjorklund was a starter for much of the season because of her sharp-shooting, but was replaced by Auguste after struggling from behind the arc. Bjorklund has come off the bench in the NCAA tourney, and Summitt lauded her defense against Texas A&M.
"Angie played her best defense of her career late in that game," Summitt said. "I was really pleased just watching her defensively."
Bjorklund wants to drain some shots Sunday, and she said her approach was to think about her teammates, especially the seniors.
"You have to do it for your team," Bjorklund said. "That's what you've got to think of. I've got to knock down shots. And if I'm not hitting then I've got to do whatever I can besides that – I need to get inside, I need to step up on defense more and rebound. Whatever it takes."
Bjorklund's thoughts are with the seniors. Hornbuckle said the same thing last year when she was a junior – she wanted to send the seniors out the door with a national championship. Bjorklund's sentiments were welcomed by Hornbuckle.
"It does make you feel good because when your underclassmen are there for you and not to enjoy whatever happens it makes it a lot better," Hornbuckle said. "They'll dig a lot deeper."
Bjorklund tried to imagine herself in three years.
"If I were a senior and I were in their shoes I would want my freshmen and my underclassmen to help me," she said. "I'm looking at them and putting myself in their shoes. I need to help them and I need to do whatever it takes to help them because this is their last two games. I want them to go out on top.
They've helped me so much as a freshman getting adjusted here and welcoming me to the program that I need to do this for them in return. I've learned so much. Having the best veteran squad to learn from first year has been huge. I'm definitely privileged. I came in at the right time. They've been here and done that. They've been able to tell us what we need to be ready for, what it's going to be like and what we need to bring."
Bringing something has been Tennessee's postseason theme, and the players have written various "dishes" on their shoes. Parker has BEEF on the toe of one shoe. Bjorklund has PEAS.
"They are little acronyms that we have," said Bjorklund, who said her dish reminds her to bring Positive, energy, efficiency, attitude and shooting.
Hornbuckle has SPRITE written on her shoe – a potluck needs a beverage, she said – but she won't reveal what it stands for until after the season is over.
Shannon Bobbitt needs to bring a fast tempo. She also would like to shoot as well as she did the last time Tennessee played in Tampa in a 70-67 win over Oklahoma on Nov. 15. Bobbitt hit six 3-pointers and scored 27 points. Parker had 28 points in that game.
"We have to help her," Bobbitt said. "We have to be able to knock down shots. A lot is at stake right now. We really have to step it up."
The Lady Vols drew the late game again in the tourney, but they said the tip time won't be an issue as it has been twice before this postseason. Tennessee also had the late game last year against North Carolina in the semifinal.
"I guess the Final Four is a little bit different," Hornbuckle said. "It's the Final Four. You're here. You get a little smell of what the championship could be like, and that's motivation within itself. It's one of the greatest atmospheres to play in."
"It doesn't matter if we're playing at midnight," Bjorklund said.
"This is the Final Four," Auguste said. "We're trying to win a national championship. We feel like LSU is standing in our way. They're our next opponent. Defense is going to the key and rebounding is going to be the key as well."
Tennessee has two excellent rebounders and defenders in Hornbuckle and Anosike.
"When we need a stop, you go to Lex. Or you go to Big Nick," Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell said. "(Hornbuckle) can turn the game around. She's an X factor. So is Nicky. They're like the silent assassinators. Love those two. Love the heart, love the energy, love the fact that they give it all the time."
Hornbuckle also has summoned an offensive game this postseason, and that is something that Summitt said is vital.
"Alexis right now is more confident and playing just a better all-around game, probably one of the best all-around guards I've coached at Tennessee," Summitt said. "I hope she can come here and play at both ends the way we know she's capable of."
It was Hornbuckle's 25-footer with two seconds on the shot clock that secured the win over Texas A&M and propelled the Lady Vols to Tampa. She had missed two layups earlier in the game but drained the shot from NBA range when Tennessee had to have a basket.
"There's no quit in Hornbuckle," Summitt said. "She got frustrated and I tried to stay so positive with her. No one tries harder. She's passionate. She does the defensive dirty work. She gets on the boards. She's a great rebounding guard. I know how passionate she is in doing the things that she thinks will help our team. I just tried to stay positive the whole way.
"She knows the expectations, and I have reminded her. You have to be a guard that's going to defend, rebound and get paint points. She's responded really well. Her leadership by example is key for this team. She really inspires this team. She is one of the best all-around guards I've coached.
"Alexis has got to be a big-time player for us to be the team we'll have to be to win in Tampa."
Summitt also needs Anosike to add some offense to her shutdown defense, board play and leadership.
"She's the glue," Summitt said. "She's going to get in the huddle and she's going to encourage and inspire and challenge. She will doing anything to win, if that's set the screen, if that's get the rebound, if that's take the shot. I think she's kind of the mother hen of our team."
Anosike's mother, Ngozi Anosike, will be in Tampa to see her daughter play after making the trip Sunday from New Jersey. She raised eight children alone in New York, and they have followed in the footsteps of their mother, who went to nursing school while working and raising her family, by becoming successful in different fields.
"My mom wanted a better life for us," Anosike said. "I have to just live it to the fullest and enjoy it and make her proud and let her know everything she did wasn't for a waste and that it was for a reason. I know she's proud of me. She doesn't think I can do any wrong at this point. She's proud that I'm here and proud that I'm a part of the team and that I'm an important part of the team."
LSU left Anosike alone about 15 feet away from the basket in the last game. Summitt wants her to take those shots if it happens again.
"She anchors down our defense, tough on the boards, leadership," Summitt said. "Even if she didn't score for us the other night (against A&M), her presence is huge for us. You've got to guard her, and they may not guard her. In Nashville they didn't guard her, and she hesitated to shoot the ball. I told her, ‘Pull the trigger.' She can score from the high post."
Bobbitt also landed in Tennessee after beginning life in New York. During Saturday's pre-game press conference, Summitt was asked about New York players.
"One thing is a lot of them just grew up on the playgrounds and went to the park and played with the guys and played up and down and played for hours," Summitt said. "We've gotten some special players out of New York."
Those New York seniors will be in the starting lineup for Tennessee on Sunday. The other two are also seniors and the fifth is a fourth-year junior who will be the top pick in the WNBA draft in a few days.
"We came far," Bobbitt said of the journey from preseason to April. "We came too far to not play in the championship game. We know LSU is a great team and it's going to be a great game. They're going to come at us; we've just got to answer."
Hornbuckle is curious to see what that answer entails. With Parker injured, the naysayers chimed in early with doubts about Tennessee's ability to take on LSU and its inside presence in Fowles.
"With Candace being injured they think our team is incapable," Hornbuckle said. "I think everybody on our team is underrated and they don't realize our capabilities. We haven't been through this because when she was injured with her knee (as a freshman) she didn't play. We never had to go through a season and worry about if we're going to have her or not have her at the most crucial time.
"I'm confident in my team that we're going to step up, and I'm anxious to see how it's going to turn out and put a smile not only on our faces but a smile on the fans."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (9.8 points per game, 3.0 rebounds per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (10.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg); Alberta Auguste, 5'11 senior guard, No. 33 (5.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (21.6 ppg, 8.3 ppg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (8.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg).
Hornbuckle has increased her production in the NCAA postseason with 12.3 ppg and 7.0 rpg. She is hitting 48.6 percent of her shots overall and is 7-14 (50 percent) from behind the arc. She also is 6-7 from the free throw line (85.8 percent) and has 28 rebounds, third only to Anosike (31 boards) and Parker (30). She leads the team with 18 steals in the NCAA tourney and has 101 thefts for the season.
"You can never promise that your shots will go in but she (Summitt) does reassure us that if we stick with our defense and boards, the shots will fall whether it's transition points off steals and turnovers or if it's just getting better open looks with the confidence building from our defense," Hornbuckle said.
Summitt said postseason can mean offensive struggles for any team, even one used to scoring a lot of points.
"People turn up the defensive heat but also I think the pressure of winning," Summitt said. "A lot of times you're not as relaxed offensively. You can try and talk them through it and encourage them. I feel like a cheerleader during postseason more than a coach sometimes.
"In postseason typically you don't shoot the ball as well; very few teams do. Defense obviously is turned up with the intensity and the board play. Invariably I've been in some real ugly championship games. Last year wasn't very pretty until the end. We struggled to make shots, but so did North Carolina. You can't let your offense affect your defense. It did in the Notre Dame game. I thought we just really collapsed defensively. We talked about that. I was very, very disappointed, and I shared that with them going into our A&M game, and I really thought that they responded."
A matchup with LSU often means points are difficult to accumulate for both teams, though Tennessee jumped out to a 21-2 lead in Knoxville this season before collapsing defensively and ultimately losing the lead and the ballgame, 78-62. The final score was misleading – it was a five-point game late – but Tennessee started missing shots and fouling LSU, and the Lady Tigers handed Tennessee its worst defeat of the season. The only other game the Lady Vols lost this season was to Stanford, and the Cardinal also is in Tampa.
"It's usually an SEC championship, whether regular season or tournament, on the line," Summitt said. "We're familiar with each other. It's going to be a battle of wills and execution. Sometimes it's a defensive battle and an offensive struggle because both teams are so good defensively and we do know each other. I expect it to be a very physical game, and I expect defense and board play to be key for both teams. And it's whoever can score the basketball. We're going to have to make shots."
LSU Coach Van Chancellor is expected to start: Erica White, 5'3 senior guard, No. 5 (7.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg); RaShonta LeBlanc, 5'7 senior guard, No. 12 (6.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg); Quianna Chaney, 5'11 senior guard, No. 15 (14.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg); Ashley Thomas, 6'0 senior forward, No. 54 (5.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg); and Sylvia Fowles, 6'6 senior center, No. 34 (17.2 ppg, 10.0 rpg).
"I hope he's just happy to be here," Pat Summitt joked.
Summitt watched the regional final against North Carolina and found herself pulling for the Lady Tigers, because of Chancellor, who has had considerable success in the WNBA and as an Olympic coach. But he had never been to a Final Four until this season.
"I was happy for him. I was cheering for him," Summitt said.
Chancellor opened his press conference to point out his displeasure with the press attention on a possible Tennessee-UConn matchup.
"I just think this team deserves a little more respect than what it's getting," Chancellor said, referring to reports he had seen on ESPN and a local paper.
White later told the media that she would be sure to apologize for still being in town Monday when sportswriters were expecting dueling press conferences – sure to be baited by some writers – between Summitt and Geno Auriemma.
"We feel that way but then again we're so used to it that it don't pay us no never mind," Fowles said. "He's that way because he's the coach, and he feels that we should get more recognition. We just see it as a motivation. We're willing to prove people wrong."
And although the matchup has been billed as Fowles vs. Parker, it is Anosike's defense in the paint that will be key for Tennessee.
"Nicky is very physical in there," Fowles said. "She's not as big, but her presence there is a lot about what she does. She's very emotional and passionate and crashing the boards. Her actions and her words speak when she's out on the court. I always hear Nicky talk. At first I didn't think she was as verbal, but she says a lot and always puts her word in and says what she feels."
Despite the familiarity between the two teams both coaches said the postseason wasn't the time for any substantial changes.
"We won't change anything," Chancellor said. "We would not dare think about changing anything, not at this stage of the game. You run what you run and try to work it. I don't think there's any doubt."
Anosike and Hornbuckle combined for eight of Tennessee's 12 offensive boards in the last game. Chancellor said the Lady Tigers must keep the Lady Vols from getting second-chance points.
"I think you have to keep Tennessee off the offensive boards," Chancellor said. "If you don't, you can't beat them."
The two teams usually have something at stake with they play each other, and the other's league and national success has pushed both programs.
"I think we've been good for each other," Hornbuckle said. "We've helped each other grow. We've handed each other losses in critical times in the season. They bumped us out for the number one spot regular season. We bumped them out for the tournament. And now it's for the Final Four."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-LSU game. Here is her assessment.
When LSU has the ball: "They're going to look to go inside. Sylvia Fowles is the key for them and someone who has established herself as a transition presence," Caldwell said. "They're going to need transition baskets, they're going to need Erica White pushing tempo and another player who you cannot sleep on is Quianna Chaney. She's been able to extend the defense and shoot the three ball well. We've got to make sure that we're disrupting them, disrupting their transition game because they're very good at that, disrupting their inside play and not giving them open threes."
Defensively, the Lady Tigers are likely to use man and zone looks, especially a 1-3-1.
"They'll play that 1-3-1, which looks like a matchup zone," Caldwell said. "They'll get after you man to man. I think Van's does a good job of mixing up their defense. They're a team that will really help each other and overload the strong side.
"They'll get after you on the perimeter as well. Taking care of the basketball is going to be key against their defensive pressure."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We want to establish our inside-outside attack. We want to make sure that we, too, are pushing tempo. I think that's a strength of ours. It will be key for our perimeter game to step up and be able to knock down shots, especially when they're running 1-3-1, we're going to have to be able to knock down open jumpers and shoot from the perimeter well. As well as we do establishing our inside game we've got to establish our perimeter game, too."
Defensively, the Lady Vols also intend to mix up the looks it will show LSU.
"We go full court, three-quarter court, half-court, we go man, we go matchup," Caldwell said. We'll definitely be mixing it up and keeping that pace hopefully to our advantage. We want to make sure we're sticking to our game plan. Whatever action we do we want to make sure that we're applying a lot of ball pressure and that it's one and done and we're boxing out and getting five to the boards."
The assistant coaches get little rest at a Final Four because of the work that goes into completing a scouting report. They split up the three teams and still help each other by watching film on the other teams. There is little turnaround time from the day the NCAA tourney tips off and it's a whirlwind of activity on and off the court for the three-week run to the Final Four.
"I think the key is we don't just like, we love each other," Caldwell said. "There is not anything we wouldn't do for each other. We're all on the same page. Everybody's part is equally important. That starts with Pat creating that environment for us.
"I tell people all the time I work with a businesswoman that is running a multi-million dollar business. She manages an office, she manages a staff, she has a team and that product is what we put out there for our fans to see. When you have someone who promotes that type of environment it's very easy because she's not going to have it any other way."
Caldwell also handled the scouting report for the February game against LSU. Before that game she mentioned some things the team could try against LSU. Pat Summitt listened but decided to wait.
"The other thing that's special about Pat is that we can disagree on things," Caldwell said then. "I was like well let's do this, this and this because I get my mind running sometimes. And she's like, ‘Well, no, not right before the LSU game, but I would like to do this maybe later on in postseason.' I was like, ‘All right. Good!'
"She listened to me and she thought about it and her plan, now that I think about it, is even better. But being able to have that type of dialogue where you can go to your coach … you don't feel like it's not important."
The two SEC teams will be playing for a third time – they split this season – and are very familiar with each other sets, tendencies and personnel. Is this the time to try something new?
"I think you look at what you can improve on and you sometimes throw in wrinkles," Caldwell said. "But the core of what you run, the core of who you are, that doesn't change. The farther you advance, you may do a counter here – it likes a chess match; it's very strategic planning – and you want to make sure you're on top of what's a strength of yours and what's a weakness of yours and then how can we improve in that area."
The deployment of Candace Parker doesn't change, either.
"You don't change your game plan," Caldwell said. "Candace came back after that injury and her presence on the floor is tremendous. Candace Parker with a bum shoulder is about as good as a lot of players still playing.
"I don't think you change your game plan at all. I think you go into this game aggressive. What you expect to happen is that everybody comes to play and that everybody plays their roles to the best of their abilities."
AWARD WATCH: Candace Parker was selected as the AP Player of the Year while the Wade Trophy went to Candice Wiggins of Stanford.
Parker also was named to the State Farm All-American Team, along with Wiggins, Sylvia Fowles of LSU; Crystal Langhorne of Maryland; Erlana Larkins of North Carolina; Angel McCoughtry of Louisville; Renee Montgomery of UConn; Maya Moore of UConn; Courtney Paris of Oklahoma; and Kristi Toliver of Maryland.
Parker won the Wade Trophy last season and was considered the leading candidate this year, but Wiggins took home the hardware Saturday.
"I'm not prepared to say anything," said Wiggins, who was in tears. "I am so honored to receive this. I don't know how to put that into words."
"Candice Wiggins truly represents what the Wade award is all about, and I am so happy for her," Parker said. "As you can tell from her reaction she's a great person, a close friend of mine, so I'm really happy for her."
The Wade Trophy is voted on by a committee of coaches, journalists and basketball administrators.
On Saturday afternoon Parker was selected AP's player of the year with 40 of 50 votes from the media who vote in AP's weekly poll.
THE FRANCHISE: Jenny Moshak was as much in demand by the media as Candace Parker as a primary topic Saturday was the health of Parker.
Parker has spent considerable time with Moshak since the dislocations with constant treatment that includes electrical stimulation, muscle strengthening, ice and stretching.
"We have become very close, and it's a good thing we like each other," Moshak said.
"Jenny and I cannot run out of things to talk about," Parker said. "I love that woman. I will love her for the rest of my life. She is a special person and I want to take the time to honestly thank her because she goes above and beyond the call of duty."
A dislocated shoulder can restrict mobility, but Parker demonstrated in the locker room that she does have considerable range of motion.
"I have Jenny," Parker said. "I'm braced. Obviously I'm not going to be reaching completely behind me for a rebound or doing pushups or pull-ups. I feel like I'm strong. I've prayed about it and I'm going to go out there and give it my best shot."
Moshak and the team orthopedist have the final determination in releasing Parker to play.
"Jenny Moshak will monitor the shoulder," Summitt said. "That's our right-hand person and obviously she's had a lot of experience in dealing with injuries. … And I think Jenny has to listen to Candace, and Candace has to listen to Jenny. And I think their communication is such that we're going to get the right results in the end, whether that's play her or sit her."
Moshak said there are certain positions with her shoulder that Parker must avoid.
"Obviously putting it into the vulnerable position – like the throwing motion (used by a pitcher) – she's probably going to think twice about that," Moshak said. "The brace that we're going to put her in is going to restrict her from that motion a little bit.
"In daily life she's a little bit more aware of that, but she has full range of motion so that's a big plus. Obviously she's going to be a little more cautious when she puts herself in that type of position. Keep her arm closer to her body and safer. If you noticed in the second half of the Texas A&M game she did a very good job. I think she'll be aware of that from a conscious level. Subconsciously, I'm hoping adrenaline will play its role, as well."
PHYSICAL PLAY: The coaches and Candace Parker were asked if they thought the player would be targeted for hard fouls, and all seemed taken aback.
"I expect to see hard screens out of LSU because in their motion offense, they are athletic, they're aggressive," Pat Summitt said. "But I don't expect to see a hard foul from LSU intentionally. I just don't see that as who they are. … But I would – that has never crossed my mind. Maybe I'm naïve, but the only thing Van told me when I got here (Friday) is that he had never cheered so hard in his life for Texas A&M. So I had to laugh. I said only Van would tell me that. I said, ‘Van, I cheered for you.' "
Chancellor said he had no intention of targeting Parker with overly aggressive play.
"That's not the way I coach," Chancellor said. "I don't want to win a championship by hurting an athlete. I'd rather lose. I don't believe in that. That's not our coaching style. That's not the way LSU will ever play. We'll play a good hard game, and we'll play it to the end."
Parker said she was not concerned about being fouled.
"I'm not going to be put out there unless I can take a hit like that," Parker said. "I'm tough-minded and I'm tough."
If any contact to her shoulder were intentional, "I think that would be rather below the belt but obviously I'm fine," Parker said. "My medical staff is not going to put me out there unless I am going to be able to play a physical game of basketball and honestly Texas A&M was one of the most physical games of the entire year and I could withstand that."
STAR POWER: Each team has a player with considerable wattage in Candace Parker of Tennessee; Candice Wiggins of Stanford; Sylvia Fowles of LSU; and Maya Moore of UConn.
Those are the four whose faces adorn most of the promotional materials and who have generated the most discussion among the media. All four also are State Farm All-Americans.
"That's a huge promotion of the women's game," Parker said. "I think this Final Four is one of the best that we've had in years. We have great teams and great competition and I think that a lot of players stand out, but it's the team that really makes everything go and the matchups.
"They do identify from the commercials to the media coverage but all in all they'll be going on Sunday to watch Stanford, Connecticut, Tennessee and LSU. We're standing up there for getting the awards for WBCA All-American, but it's really our team and our coaches that pushed us. Every day in practice I'm playing against the best, playing alongside the best and being coached by the best with the best fans in America so I just feel blessed."
FUNNY FOWLES: Sylvia Fowles is playing in her fourth Final Four – the Lady Tigers are still seeking their first semifinal win at this stage in the season – and she has come a long way since her days as a shy freshman.
"I'm very outspoken, and I mean that in a good way," Fowles said. "I might not say much while I'm out on the court because I'm not very verbal, but I'm very outspoken. It took me awhile because I was somewhat shy of the media and the cameras."
When asked what went wrong for her in the previous game against Tennessee, Fowles said she was "probably getting aggravated … but I have learned over the previous years that those things can't happen. Coach Van has got a thing called ‘no paraphernalia.'
"He broke it down to us the other day what it actually means and basically it's don't let nothing bother you, it happened, let it go completely, just flush it and let it go. I have been able to do that this past year."
Fowles, who is expected to be taken second in the draft by the Chicago Sky, said she briefly thought about leaving after last season.
"It crossed my mind a little bit," Fowles said. "But I always knew that I wanted to play with my teammates again, and I wanted to have another run at it."
She told the story about surviving being hit by a car as a child after chasing after her older brothers – she wanted to tag along, and they were always leaving her behind – and running into the path of a car. She remembered seeing her brother run home for help and then waking up in a hospital.
She showed the scars on her knees and elbows from altercations with her brothers, who will watch her play Sunday.
She imitated Van Chancellor trying to relate to this generation.
" ‘Ladies, I'm rolling today. Y'all with me,' " Fowles said. "He thinks he's hip now."
Chancellor calls Fowles "Big'Un."
"I don't really know what to take from that," Fowles said. "Honestly I don't what it means. I don't even know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. I just go with the flow of whatever he says. Coach doesn't call nobody on the team by their name."
THREE OUT OF FOUR: Two of Tennessee's players, seniors Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle, will play in three Final Fours during their career. They went as freshmen, lost in a regional final as sophomores, won it all as juniors and are in Tampa as seniors.
"This is clockwork for coach but we try to take advantage of the opportunity and seize the moment and just keep trying to make history," Hornbuckle said.
Tennessee wants to repeat as champions and hang one more banner in the arena.
"It would mean that this team did something that we haven't done in a long time – win back-to-back championships," Summitt said. "That's a long way away for us (figuratively speaking with LSU looming) but certainly a goal of our team. Our coaching staff, my assistants as well as myself, we just to do everything we can to help them be successful this weekend."
This will be Tennessee's 18th Final Four, the most of any women's team and the same as UCLA's men's team.
"It never gets old and it's just incredible that so many teams have found a way to get to a Final Four," Pat Summitt said.
Tennessee's freshmen are enjoying their first one.
"It's been great," Vicki Baugh said. "Tampa's weather is nice. I'm looking forward to my grandparents coming."
Baugh is from Sacramento and it is rare for her family to see her play. The last time Calvin and Barbara Baugh saw a game in person was when Tennessee traveled to Stanford a few days before Christmas.
The freshmen are looking to the veterans for guidance, as they have all season long.
"It takes off a lot of pressure being a freshman and having five veterans leading the way," Angie Bjorklund said. "Here it's expected. This is the point we've been looking at."
Candace Parker sees a difference in the veterans at this Final Four compared to 2007.
"Last year I feel like we were wide-eyed and looking around and really excited," Parker said. "I think this year we're more focused. It's obviously different, but we want the same result as last year."
The seniors huddled on the floor together in Oklahoma City and also remembered to thank the youngsters.
"At the end of the game when we were on the court with each other, we just said, ‘I love you and thank you for where you're putting us, giving us the opportunity to go to the Final Four,' " Alexis Hornbuckle said. "Thanked the underclassmen and we're just excited to get there and still be competing.
"I'm excited, a little more nervous because when this is all said and done it's the end of my collegiate career. I don't want to end it early, and I don't want to end with regrets. But I am definitely excited."
Both teams have five seniors in the starting lineup.
"Experience helps anytime you get into late situations or just knowing that each possession counts and not taking anything for granted, experience is always in your hand, but at the same time it's about the heart and hustle," Hornbuckle said.
RACCOON REDUX: Pat Summitt was once again asked to tell the story about how she dislocated her right shoulder knocking a raccoon off her deck that was too close to Sally Sue Summitt, her yellow lab.
"I just reacted," Summitt said. "Fortunately I've never done this with a player; I wouldn't be here."
Summitt added the details that she tried to get the shoulder back in place by herself by sitting in a recliner and moving her arm, taking a hot shower and putting a pillow under it. When none of those methods worked she called Dr. Rebecca Morgan, the team physician, and she came over. With the assistance of Tyler, Summitt's teenage son, they got her shoulder back in the socket.
"Never saw that raccoon again," Summitt said. "He's probably thinking that's the craziest woman I've ever met. I'm out of here."
SAY WHAT?: When Geno Auriemma was asked what made Maya Moore pick UConn, he said it was because she's "smarter than the average kid," and ignored the recruiting pitches.
"She doesn't buy into the flash and the glitz and the glitter and she doesn't allow you to recruit her mother, her coach, her boyfriend," Auriemma said. "She doesn't get into all that."
Auriemma said he saw Moore on a trip to Georgia to see Ketia Swanier and asked someone else who she was. He was told she was a ninth grader.
Auriemma said he returned home and – "I don't think we started cheating then," he said – and instead of sending a letter (the player was too young), he contacted Moore's high school.
"Before you even know it," Auriemma said, a newspaper article arrived from Moore's mother with two photos of her daughter and a note that said, "Coach, just want you to be aware there's a great player down here; her name is Maya Moore, and you might want to keep an eye on her in the next couple of years," he relayed.
UConn is the subject of an NCAA investigation involving the recruitment of Moore, and the school was recently found to have committed a secondary violation for arranging a private tour of ESPN while she was visiting the school.
The sarcastic line about not cheating yet brought laughter from the assembled media, but it seemed like an odd remark to make when the school has been the focus of an NCAA probe. The NCAA has a rather dour sense of humor.
SIGN AND SWEAT: The autograph sessions for the four teams were held outside the Forum, and the players, coaches and fans were sweating under a hot sun Saturday. The Lady Vols wore sunglasses – Candace Parker donned a large pair that had her looking Los Angeles bound – and draped towels over their heads. They also generously applied sunscreen with 50 SPF to protect their skin.
Tennessee's session began at 1:15 p.m., but the line for their table began forming three hours earlier. It snaked well away from the Forum and down the sidewalk. The sessions were limited to 30 minutes – Tennessee had an open practice scheduled right after the autograph session – and the Lady Vol players had water and orange drinks to help them stay hydrated.
Pat Summitt briefly left the court during the practice session to greet four former Lady Vols – Semeka Randall, Tasha Butts, Shalon Pillow and Bridgette Gordon – when she saw them come near the floor.
THE FUTURE: In the first half of the WBCA/Tampa Bay All-America Game, Tennessee signees Shekinna Stricklen, Amber Gray and Alyssia Brewer were running the open floor. Stricklen passed ahead to Gray, who found Brewer cutting to the basket for the layup.
"Tennessee, let's go!" Gray yelled as she headed back up court.
The Red Team ran past the White Team, 114-79, in the game between high school All-Americans at the Sun Dome on the campus of South Florida. All four Tennessee recruits who participated in the event were assigned to the Red Team.
"We went out there to have fun," Gray said. "We saw each other, and that's what it's all about. We're showing them a little glimpse of the future."
"I loved that play," Stricklen said. "That was great."
Stricklen led the Tennessee contingent with 13 points followed by 12 for Brewer, 10 for Glory Johnson and seven for Gray.
Johnson even hit a three-pointer as the Red Team romped over the White Team. The Red squad's lead at halftime was 58-32. The White Team was led by Lynetta Kizer and Nnemkadi Ogwumike, who both had 17 points, and Jasmine Dixon with 10.
Johnson, a back-to-the-basket player, joked that she was auditioning for a perimeter spot. Pat Summitt and Nikki Caldwell watched the first half of the game from an end-zone seat.
"I'm going to try to be the three player so I'm not going to be posting up," Johnson joked. "I need to work on my shot."
Johnson also hit a mid-range jumper from the wing, but Summitt was likely more interested in her eight rebounds, including seven on the defensive end.
It was a typical free-wheeling All-Star game – the teams combined for 47 turnovers – but the Red Team also played some defense in the first half – when Summitt happened to be watching – and limited the White Team to 32 points and 30.8 percent shooting. The Red Team shot 52.6 percent in the first half and 51.4 percent for the game.
"We were just playing hard," Johnson said. "They had a run going on; we had to stop that. We had to make sure their run wasn't going anywhere so the game wasn't close."
The four players will join Alicia Manning and Briana Bass on campus this summer to get an early start on their collegiate coursework and conditioning. Gray said five of the signees intend to come for the first session of summer in June. Brewer can't arrive that early because her high school in Oklahoma graduates too late to make the first term.
But Brewer said she would be in Knoxville in July.
"Coach Summitt is not one of those coaches that you can't pass up and say no to," Brewer said. "She's one of the greatest coaches in history. Knoxville reminds me of home so much because I'm from Oklahoma, the Southern kinds of stuff, so it kind of made me feel like I was at home."
Gray is eagerly anticipating her arrival at Tennessee.
"We're going down for the first summer semester so we can get there and start working together and start getting the chemistry," Gray said. "I'm ready to get down there."
THE PAST: Former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings was the co-captain for the Red Team and had the chance to work with the players while they were in Tampa.
"All of them are fun people to be around," Catchings said.
Catchings is recovering from a rupture of her right Achilles tendon that she suffered last September in the WNBA playoffs with the Indiana Fever.
"I should be ready this summer," Catchings said. "That's the plan, I'm hoping to get back for regular season. I'm on the court. I'm shooting and running. I'm doing some cutting and stuff like that. The biggest thing for me is getting my wind back."
When Catchings went down, she tried to return to the game but could not walk. She watched the Texas A&M game when Candace Parker dislocated her shoulder and knew that the All-American would do anything to retake the court.
"You want to win. You get this far. It's win or go home," Catchings said. "She's watching the game from the back and you see the score teeter totter back and forth. For her she's not going to lose this one, whatever I need to do, tape it up, Jenny, do what you've got to do.
"I think just having her out there her teammates picked it up. Everybody else started playing better around her."