Shooting woes, lack of leadership hurting Lady Vols
Updated: January 31, 2006, 12:41 PM ETBy Nancy Lieberman | Special to ESPN.com
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.
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesShanna Zolman, left, and Alexis Hornbuckle shot a combined 24 percent in the losses to Kentucky and Duke.
JUST NOT OFTEN
|What an atypical week for Candace Parker.
First, as Duke routed Tennessee last Monday, the Lady Vols' redshirt freshman lost for the first time since her sophomore season of high school. Then as Tennessee lost its first back-to-back games in nine seasons, Parker lost two straight games for the first time in her career, said her mom, Sara Parker.
Candace Parker's prep team, Naperville Central, did lose twice during her senior season, but that was while she was out rehabbing her knee. But with Parker on the court, she went undefeated her final two seasons of high school as well as throughout her various summer experiences with USA Basketball.
"That's the first game Candace has lost since she was 15 and a sophomore in high school," Sara Parker said after Duke defeated Tennessee. "Candace is always harder on herself than anybody else. The defeat really stung. She takes it very personal and only ends up working harder."
-- ESPN's Nancy Lieberman
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.
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesDespite averaging 21 points in the losses, Candace Parker has been plenty frustrated during Tennessee's two-game skid.