With Parker leading way, Lady Vols score 'devilish' win
HARTFORD, Conn. -- There was a sign in the Hartford Civic Center on Saturday that read, "The Devil Doesn't Wear Prada, She Wears Orange."
Even more specifically, she wears No. 3.
We've all seen a No. 3 take over this great rivalry before, but that was when the "devil" was wearing blue and white. Diana Taurasi was 7-1 against Tennessee in her career.
Candace Parker is now 2-0, and sure enough, this Devil gave the Huskies all kinds of hell in Tennessee's 70-64 victory. Yes, she had the cherry-on-top dunk, which she pretty much dismissed as no big deal.
Even though the dunk will make all the highlight films, it was just a small part of what Parker did in helping give UConn its first loss of the season. She was omnipotent: on the court all 40 minutes, finishing with 30 points, 12 rebounds, six blocks, four assists and one steal.
It was the first game this season that Parker's gone 40; she was in 38 minutes in the loss at North Carolina on Dec. 3.
"She grabbed me in the first half and said, 'Don't take your timeouts home with you, Coach,' " Tennessee's Pat Summitt said afterward, chuckling. "That was her way of saying, 'I need some rest.'
"But I knew today with a game like this and the 2½-minute (television) timeouts, she was going to have to go the distance."
Of course, it may well have been that the sign-maker was actually referring to Summitt as "the Devil" but suffice to say it was Parker whose metaphorical pitchfork damaged the Huskies in a Tennessee-dominant first half and then kept them at bay in a UConn-rally second half.
Incidentally, the Devil sign actually was my second-favorite thing in the stands, behind the Husky-dog hand puppet that its wearer had giving a Golden Globe-worthy performance as it "cheered" its beloved team. That woman ought to be an absolute all-star on the pre-school birthday-party circuit. Even I wanted to go talk to the puppet.
But back to the Devil UConn coach Geno Auriemma had said Friday that he thought the Huskies would guard Parker about the way Tennessee had guarded Taurasi. That is to say, not very well.
He knew it was folly to think Parker was going to be stopped, and even "slowing" her was unlikely. So he figured the game would come down to how well the Huskies defended everyone else.
They did pretty well, but not quite well enough. The only other player in double figures for Tennessee was Sidney Spencer with 14. But juco transfer Shannon Bobbitt also acquitted herself well in her first experience in a UConn-Tennessee game, with nine points, two assists and only one turnover. Bobbitt and Alexis Hornbuckle both provided the speed in the backcourt that made Tennessee's defense more effective.
Ten of Spencer's points came in the first half, after which Tennessee led 41-29 and it appeared our hopes for a much-needed fun and exciting big game were not going to be fulfilled.
Early in the second half, Parker dunked. Then she had a blocked shot and a sweet assist to Nicky Anosike -- all in a stretch of 23 seconds. Even the wildly emoting hand puppet was no match for that amazing show.
Tennessee was up by 18. Some folks asked her afterward if she was smiling on her way to the slam, because it appeared so, but Parker said it wasn't anything deliberate. Her normal dunking expression is sort of a smile, she said.
UConn's Brittany Hunter said the dunk kind of ticked her off, and some will suggest it motivated the Huskies more than it did Tennessee -- since pretty soon after, the Huskies started their rally.
Summitt didn't think so, though. She believed a UConn comeback was inevitable.
"To me, that (dunk) wasn't as much of a factor -- I thought they came out of the locker room a lot more focused on pushing tempo and just running the ball up our back and going inside," Summitt said. "They put their most athletic team on the floor to start the second half, so it was pretty clear what the game plan was."
And all of a sudden, the second half turned into a blast. UConn would creep closer, and there was Parker with the pitchfork poking them away. She hit a jumper off an assist from Alexis Hornbuckle. Made a couple of free throws. Hit another jump shot after UConn had tied the score 58-58 on Mel Thomas' 3-pointer, the decibel-busting high point of the game.
After Thomas swished that shot, the crowd was all set to carry the Huskies to victory. But the Devil stood in the road and wouldn't let them pass. She got help at the 3:49 mark when Spencer made her biggest shot of the second half, a gigantic 3-pointer. That was followed by one more jumper from Parker.
Charde Houston -- who had a fine game with 23 points and eight boards -- answered with a basket, and then almost made a play to beat the Devil -- she stole the ball from Parker. Quickly, though, it was knocked loose and back in Orange hands. Parker's last points came on two free throws, and she threw in a final block for good measure with eight seconds left.
"We said that we wanted to walk out of here where you've given it your all," Parker said. "I played hard for 40 minutes, and our team played well. I'm happy."
Auriemma was asked about the completeness of Parker's game, which has always been there, but Saturday was at such a high level throughout.
"They have the best player," Auriemma said. "The time Candace spent with the U.S. team, playing with those guys and being around them and gaining that kind of experience against that level of players, (helped). Her intensity level and concentration during the game is so much better now than it was before. All the skills she has are more evident now."
He didn't need to add that he enjoyed it a lot more when the Devil was on his side.Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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