With star benched, Lady Vols pick up where Parker left off
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.
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.
Jan. 2: Tennessee at DePaul
Jan. 3: Illinois State at Evansville
Jan. 5: Tennessee at Notre Dame
Jan. 6: Connecticut at Purdue
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.
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."
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