Commentary

With star benched, Lady Vols pick up where Parker left off

Updated: January 3, 2008, 4:16 PM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- Tennessee closed out the old year with a loss against Stanford that proved the defending champ was anything but invincible, even with Candace Parker in the lineup, if a talented opponent did more rebounding and defending than genuflecting and shaking.

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ESPN.com columnist Graham Hays attended four women's basketball games in Illinois and Indiana over a five-day span. Along the way, Hays got to see the only two teams to hold the No. 1 spot in the polls this season and four former NCAA champions.

The lineup:
Jan. 2: Tennessee at DePaul
Jan. 3: Illinois State at Evansville
Jan. 5: Tennessee at Notre Dame
Jan. 6: Connecticut at Purdue

On Wednesday at No. 15 DePaul, the Lady Volunteers responded to the wake-up call, even if the presumptive player of the year had her own clock woes.

Playing without a benched Parker in the first half after she missed curfew earlier in the week, Tennessee overcame a sluggish opening eight minutes to cruise to a 102-68 win that had almost nothing to do with the 17 second-half points Parker scored in her hometown.

The headline might have been Parker's seat on the bench; the story was what she saw.

"Without her, they beat us by 19," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said of a 53-34 halftime deficit. "Without Candace, we lost by 19 in the first half. The other kids did a great job of pounding it inside."

For the first few minutes of Wednesday's game, it looked as if the story might be Parker's absence putting the Lady Vols in danger of rare back-to-back losses. With no word on why their star wasn't in the starting lineup with her parents, other relatives and a few thousand other interested observers looking on, the Lady Vols watched DePaul build a five-point lead and remain even as late as 27-27 with less than 10 minutes to play.

Pat Summitt can put a rare blend of athleticism on the court with or without Parker. But that wasn't on display as Allie Quigley and Deirdre Naughton slipped past defenders for backdoor layups on passes that floated rather than streaked through passing lanes without any sign of help defense. Tennessee looked like far less than the sum of its parts -- just as it had in squandering significant leads against UCLA and Middle Tennessee and repeatedly against North Carolina before losing outright against Stanford.

Parker might have been missing in action for a half, but the real problem was what had been missing in action at various points throughout the fall.

[+] EnlargeAlex Fuller
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAlex Fuller helped make up for Candace Parker's first-half absence with a career-high 19 points, including an 8-for-8 effort on her first-half field goals.

"You could see that Tennessee's early games, they were not the return of the champs," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. "I could see slippage in Tennessee from last March, and so I'm sure coach [Summitt] could too. I'm sure that was very severely addressed [after Stanford]."

Not surprisingly, Nicky Anosike, Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt were in the middle of things when Tennessee began to display an aggression that didn't fade over the final 30 minutes. When Tennessee broke open the 27-27 tie with nine quick points on the way to a 26-7 run to end the first half, the veteran trio combined for six points and three assists. And in a perfect punctuation minutes later, Anosike slid over to help on Naughton's drive, forcing an errant shot that Bobbitt rebounded and lofted in a full-court pass to Hornbuckle with the kind of accuracy former Vol Peyton Manning might envy.

Disciplined, decisive and demoralizing; it was everything Tennessee basketball was about before Parker, during Parker and will be after Parker.

"They're going to always be big," Bruno said. "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."

But even in the midst of a return to the championship form Summitt's key veterans displayed last spring, another veteran showed glimpses of a form rarely seen before.

Alex Fuller scored a total of 25 points in Tennessee's last eight games a season ago -- including the final two SEC tournament games against Vanderbilt and LSU and all six games of the NCAA Tournament. She took a goose egg at the Final Four in Cleveland.

She needed just 18 minutes and eight shots against DePaul to nearly match that production with 17 first-half points. She finished with a career-best 19.

"She had the hot hand," Summitt said. "Alex has been shooting the ball well in games and in practice. … The one thing that Alex has not done as much this year is shoot with her back to the basket or create opportunities with her back to the basket. She did a nice job of that tonight. She's been really strong in her face-up game; it was good to see her with her paint points."

[+] EnlargeCandace Parker
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhAfter missing a start for the first time in 84 career games, Candace Parker went on to score 17 points in Tennessee's rout.

Talking after the game about the role her class, which includes the likes of Candice Wiggins and Sylvia Fowles, might have in growing the game in future years, Parker paid classmate Fuller (like Parker a redshirt in 2004-05) a compliment by grouping her in as part of a new generation of big players with the ability to play facing the basket or in the post. But with little post offense behind Anosike and Parker, at least until freshman Vickie Baugh finds her place in the rotation, Fuller might be equally important with her back to the basket against teams that can be exploited inside and on the boards.

Given the schedule Summitt put together, Tennessee was always unlikely to cruise to back-to-back championships unscathed. But the loss against a good Stanford team on the Cardinal's home court was less worrisome than the sense the loss was the culmination of some lackluster performances -- unbeaten record or not.

All of which would have fit perfectly with the image of a star sitting on the bench by her own hand as her team disintegrated on the court.

Parker said all the right things after the game about accepting the consequences of her mistake. She never appeared to sulk or pout while supporting her teammates from the bench in the first half. And she played hard throughout her second-half minutes in a game long since decided.

But this time, Parker's teammates picked her up. And if that's their New Year's resolution, it's a scary proposition for future opponents.

"I was really pleased with our effort tonight," Summitt said. "I think this team responded after coming off a loss at Stanford. We had some great workouts [before the DePaul game] and they took ownership.

" … I think at times we've played in spurts and tonight I thought we showed great consistency and discipline from everyone on both ends of the floor."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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