Commencement up next

Three Lady Vol basketball players are expected to be in Knoxville on Friday for the spring commencement ceremony as they take a quick break from their WNBA teams to don caps and gowns and pick up their diplomas.

Candace Parker and Shannon Bobbitt will miss the Los Angeles Sparks' preseason game Thursday evening in Chicago, and Alexis Hornbuckle will briefly take a break from the Detroit Shock in order to participate in person in a student-athlete's ultimate achievement. The fourth graduate, Nicky Anosike, who plays for the Minnesota Lynx, is not expected to make it to Knoxville, as of now.

Kerry Howland, the assistant director of the Thornton Center, has spent the past four weeks since Tennessee won the national title making sure the foursome could complete their coursework online and by proctor exams.

Fifty-seven current Vols and Lady Vols representing 11 sports will graduate Friday morning.

"I'm very proud of the students that are graduating this semester," said Eric Brey, director of the Thornton Center. "They have worked hard off the field to earn their degrees and now have earned the distinction of being University of Tennessee Alumni. They should be very proud of their accomplishments."

The four basketball players, who were all drafted by the WNBA the day after winning the Lady Vols' eighth national championship in Tampa, were in town for a few days and then scattered to rookie orientation and training camp.

Parker completed a paper on the road and emailed it to Howland, who hand-delivered it to the professor to ensure its arrival. Howland found a colleague at the University of Minnesota in her network of academic contacts to serve as a proctor for three final exams for Anosike, who took them in Minnesota. Hornbuckle had to write a 15-page paper after orientation, and Bobbitt also had to complete her class work online.

The fifth senior, Alberta Auguste, needs 15 hours to complete her psychology degree, and Howland was in the process of overseeing Auguste's registration for both summer sessions. Auguste was drafted by the New York Liberty but was waived and made the decision to return to Knoxville to finish her degree now.

Howland said Auguste's situation was the norm for junior college transfers because they enter a four-year institution with electives but lacking all the junior and senior level courses and usually can't finish the necessary hours in two years.

Bobbitt was the exception to the standard, Howland said, and was adamant about finishing her psychology degree by this spring. Bobbitt even took 19 hours last fall – a very heavy course load for any student, much less a Division I athlete with conditioning, practice, game and travel commitments – and still made the honor roll. Bobbitt has said she wants to teach and coach after her playing days are over.

Howland was in Tampa with the team to celebrate the national title, but her ultimate satisfaction is what happens Friday. That is when Tennessee student-athletes that she has shepherded through the academic process walk across the stage for the final piece of the college puzzle.

"I'm real excited," Howland said. "It's a good kind of busy."

Also on Wednesday, Pat Summitt announced that she had hired Daedra Charles-Furlow to replace Nikki Caldwell, who accepted the head coaching job at UCLA last month. Charles-Furlow, who was an assistant for Auburn for the past two years, played for the Lady Vols and was known as "Night Train," a nickname bestowed by then-Louisiana Tech Coach Leon Barmore, who compared her to Dick "Night Train" Lane of the Detroit Lions because she always made something happen when she got the ball.

"We are thrilled to have Daedra rejoin the Lady Vol basketball family as an assistant coach," Summitt said. "She loves the program and our university and will bring a great deal of knowledge and experience to our staff and players. As a former player she understands both the system and the expectations of the Tennessee program. That combination should prove to be a valuable asset."

Charles-Furlow, a 6'3 center from Detroit, was named the 1991 SEC Female Athlete of the Year and became the first player from the conference to win the Wade Trophy. She was a two-time Kodak All-American (1990, 1991) and a two-time NCAA champion (1989, 1991) as a player at Tennessee.

"This is an opportunity of a lifetime," Charles-Furlow said. "I'm elated to come back to the University of Tennessee and be part of a program that I so dearly love. As a Lady Vol player, I learned so much about the game of basketball from Pat Summitt. I'm now looking forward to coaching alongside the icon of women's basketball."

She is one of five Lady Vols to have her number (32) retired, joining Holly Warlick, Bridgette Gordon, Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings. Charles-Furlow was a member of the 1992 bronze-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team and was a member of three U.S. National teams (1989, 1992, and 1994). She competed professionally in Japan, Italy and France from 1991-96, before returning to the United States to play for the Sparks in 1997.

Charles-Furlow, who is married to Anthony Furlow and is the mother of 8-year-old Anthonee, was inducted last June into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, where she joined Summitt and Warlick. That gives the Lady Vols three WBHOF coaches on the current staff.

Warlick had interviewed for the opening at South Carolina this month, but that job went to Dawn Staley of Temple. Warlick was interested in that head coach position but also noted she had an ideal situation at Tennessee.

"It keeps everything pretty much intact with having Holly being our associate head coach," Summitt said. "That would have been a huge loss. If she had been offered the job I would have totally supported her. Now, we can move on."

Summitt also has a new director of basketball operations after Danielle Donehew left the Lady Vols to take a top front-office position with the Atlanta Dream.

Summitt selected Kathy Harston, an 18-year assistant coach under former Texas Coach Jody Conradt. After the legendary Conradt retired in March of 2007, Harston became an academic counselor.

"I am extremely appreciative of the opportunity presented to me by Pat Summitt and the University of Tennessee," Harston said. "With the retirement of Jody Conradt, I stepped away from the game and served in our Student Services department at Texas. Although I enjoyed that experience, being away from the game of basketball this year, after 21 seasons as a college assistant coach, showed me how much I missed it. I wanted to return to the game, and I examined some opportunities to get back into collegiate basketball. The opportunity at Tennessee is an amazing one.

"I am so fortunate to have worked closely with one Hall of Famer in Jody Conradt, and now I have a wonderful opportunity to work with another Hall of Famer in Pat Summitt."

A former National Player of the Year candidate while starring at AIAW national powerhouse Wayland Baptist, Harston was selected as one of the "Top 25 Players of the Pre-NCAA Basketball Era" by in January of 2006.

"I've known Kathy Harston for awhile," Summitt said. "She's really a sharp, talented young woman that I think will do a great job. I think she's going to work really well in administration and work well with Katie (Wynn, Summitt's longtime secretary). Danielle's attention to detail was just tremendous and Kathy seems to be very, very talented and skilled in that area."

In other Lady Vol news, forward Vicki Baugh is scheduled to have surgery May 13 to repair the torn ACL in her left knee. She suffered the injury in the title game win over Stanford in Tampa after landing awkwardly following a drive to the basket. She has spent the past month rehabbing the knee and strengthening the quad before surgery, which was purposely scheduled after exams.

It is too soon to know whether or not Baugh will play next season as it depends on the full extent of the injury – something that is not completely known until the surgery – and the rehab process. Summitt said she has no plans to seek another post player via the juco route, and the injury does not alter any already-laid recruiting plans.

"We're good to go no matter what," Summitt said.

Tennessee will welcome six true freshmen next fall in guards Briana Bass, Shekinna Stricklen and Alicia Manning and forwards Alyssia Brewer, Glory Johnson and Amber Gray. Kelley Cain, a 6'6 center and redshirt freshman, also will be available, along with Cait McMahan, a 5'4 point guard and redshirt sophomore. Both are returning from knee surgery. The returning players are senior forward Alex Fuller and guards Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone, who will be sophomores.

"I am excited," Summitt said. "They're talented."

The Lady Vols must replace five starters who had both experience and talent. The incoming newcomers, except for McMahan, have no collegiate experience but a lot of talent.

"As Coach Wooden said, ‘Give me experience or talent; I'll take talent every time.' I think there's something to be said for players coming in that have skills and athleticism," Summitt said. "We've got size. We've got quickness. I like the makeup of our team.

"We're adding a lot of good inside play. The guard position is going to be key. We have to keep Cait healthy and do what we need to do there."

Summitt's life in the past month has been busy. She had a full slate of speaking engagements planned for April anyway and then the national title increased the demand. She has been to Los Angeles to pick up the Wooden Coaching Legends Award, Phoenix to speak to adidas and Nashville to be honored by the state Legislature. In between have been fund-raisers, a charity golf tournament for a mental health center and an event at Ijams Nature Center, to name a few.

"It's obviously been very busy," Summitt said.

Summitt will travel to Florida for the SEC Meetings and also for some down time at her Gulf Coast house later in May.

"We'll spend some time at the beach," Summitt said. "We've got a big party planned for Holly when she turns 50."

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