- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Candace Parker is trying to do too much.
You all brag she's a "guard in a 6-5 center's body," but how come Candace committed seven turnovers?
Tennessee would have won both games if CP3 played team basketball.
Women's college basketball message boards all over the internet were lit up Thursday night and through the weekend with a lot of postings like the ones above.
Tennessee's second straight loss -- the first time that has happened in a season since 1996-97 -- was a shocker. For starters, the Lady Vols hadn't lost to Kentucky since 1984. And who didn't expect Tennessee to come out firing on the heels of its 22-point loss to Duke three days earlier, a rout that marked the Lady Vols' first loss of the season and dropped them from the top spot in the polls?
But don't blame freshman Candace Parker (who fans refer to on a regular basis as "CP3") for the defeat. And don't blame Pat Summitt, either, though the Tennessee coach will need to pull off one of the most important jobs in her career in getting her team's confidence (and shot) back.
Finger pointing is typically a waste of time. Basketball is a team sport and no one player can lead to a loss. But by playing inconsistently -- continually missing shots and commiting a lot of turnovers -- some players can certainly contribute to a loss more than others.
At this point, Tennessee's guards have got to get better. Shanna Zolman and Alexis Hornbuckle were a combined 6-for-28 (21 percent) from the field against Kentucky. They were 5-for-18 (28 percent) against Duke. Against the Blue Devils, Zolman was 0-for-7, including four missed 3-point attempts. Against the Wildcats, Hornbuckle went 0-for-6. And though their shooting is the biggest concern, they also combined for 13 turnovers and eight assists (to her credit, Zolman accounts for all eight) in the past two games.
Those numbers don't come close to the sort of production you need from your guards. Hornbuckle is hardly considered the team's top shooter, but she still needs to find a way to score and get to the foul line. Zolman, who is regarded as one of the top 3-point threats in the country, must start hitting her shots. And both players, particularly Hornbuckle, who, granted is nursing a bruised right knee cap, must be better decision makers.
This year, Pat Summitt was supposed to have her best perimeter in years. Trouble is, that was before Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood left (this is another argument that has been well documented on message boards). The sophomore point guard left the team in December after just nine games and recently announced she will transfer to Maryland. That left just three guards -- Hornbuckle, Zolman and Lindsey Moss -- on Tennessee's roster, but to this point, Moss, a true freshman, doesn't appear to be much of a factor or ready to step in, averaging just 6.7 minutes and 2.1 points with 17 assists and 16 turnovers.
With the exception of Zolman, Tennessee's youth and inexperience at the point guard position is glaring right now. "There was a glaring lack of leadership during the game, which I thought was a real factor in how we responded with our lack of being able to pull it together when facing adversity," Summitt said following the Duke loss.
Tennessee's biggest weakness, however, is its shooting, which has been the Lady Vols' Achilles' heel the past few years. Last season, they put in the worst performance in Summitt's tenure, shooting 41.6 percent from the field (the previous low was 44 percent in 1992-93). Against Duke last season, Tennessee notched its worst single-game shooting performance (21-for-75 for 28 percent) in 21 years in a 59-57 loss.
The Lady Vols shot 39 percent from the field and 19 percent (3-for-16) at the foul line against Kentucky on Thursday. Despite 15 offensive boards, Tennessee scored just 10 second-chance points. With Tennessee struggling to get some ball movement, the Lady Vols only mustered two fastbreak points and failed to hit a field goal over the final two and a half minutes.
It's not that the Lady Vols aren't getting off enough shots. Despite Duke's oustanding defense, Tennessee managed 51 attempts. The Lady Vols attempted 56 shots against Kentucky and also against Vanderbilt 11 days ago when Summitt gained her 900th win. None of the those three performances quite hits their average of about 60 per game, but it's not enough off a difference to lead to a loss.
Tennessee's lack of getting to the foul line has hurt. The Lady Vols were just 2-for-10 against Duke, and though they went to the line 22 times against Kentucky, Parker accounted for 10 of those attempts. When you're not shooting well from the field, you can help compensate by getting to the foul line. Right now, though, Tennessee is struggling on both accounts.
The one positive constant? Parker. Yes, she committed an ill-timed foul that put Kentucky's best free-throw shooter on the line for three gimmes that tied the score at 60, and missed the chance to convert a 3-point play on the ensuing possession. But Parker had 25 points (one short of her career high) on 8-for-14 shooting from the field and a 9-for-10 effort at the foul line, plus nine rebounds, three assists, three blocks and just one turnover in 35 minutes against Kentucky. She was 7-for-11 from the field for 17 points, five assists, five rebounds, three blocks, two steals -- and those aforementioned seven turnovers -- against Duke in 37 minutes.
Now, it's up to Summitt to get Tennessee back on track. She has always been able to get her kids to buy into her system and she must do it again here. And though she must get the Lady Vols in the gym and have them knock down some shots, her approach and how she relates to them is more important than anything else. This isn't a time for her to beat her players down. Right now, they need to go beyond the X's and O's and focus on the mental rather than physical approach to the game.
They have the talent both offensively and defensively, but now they must believe they can get past these bumps in the road. Getting her team's confidence back now is truly one of Summitt's greatest coaching opportunities, and Sunday afternoon's 89-54 rout of Alabama -- which included 14 points, seven rebounds and six assists from Hornbuckle and 11 points from Zolman -- is a solid first step.
Selection Monday is quickly approaching. In the eyes of at least one expert, Tennessee, despite its out-of-this-world RPI and strength of schedule, already has fallen to a No. 2 seed, and will no doubt slide even further in this week's top-25 polls.
But remember this: The last time Tennessee lost back-to-back games, the Lady Vols rebounded with not only a trip to the Final Four, but an NCAA title. That's not to say Tennessee is the odds-on favorite for the 2005-06 crown, but we all know better than to count the Lady Vols out yet.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
17dBonnie D. Ford