Commentary

Parker hits pivotal shot, but freshmen come through in win

Updated: January 29, 2008, 12:21 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

DURHAM, N.C. -- Candace Parker made what turned out to be the game-clinching play, as she got to the basket and scored against single coverage. (An inexplicable mistake, the Duke contingent later acknowledged.)

Alexis Hornbuckle made the plays she needed to, although after going 1-for-9 from the field with four turnovers, she's probably just as glad to never play in Cameron Indoor Stadium again.

You expect those two to get it done one way or another, which they did. But who provided some beyond-their-years grace under fire for No. 2 Tennessee in its stirring, exciting, March Madness-like 67-64 victory over No. 10 Duke on Monday?

The rookies, Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh. Especially in the first half, when the veterans Parker and Hornbuckle really struggled from the field -- a combined 2-for-13. The kids were up to the task of dealing with the Crazies, the noise, the atmosphere and most important, the strong Duke defense.

Baugh made all three of her shots in the first half. Bjorklund shot 3-of-8 in the first 20 minutes, but two of those were 3-pointers. Plus, both played with a "presence" that had to warm the hearts of the Rocky Top faithful.

That continued in the second half. Bjorklund finished with 13 points and Baugh nine in a game where Duke proved it does have the capability to play with the best … but Tennessee still ended its three-game losing streak to the Blue Devils.

"I was very pleased with how they played," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said of Bjorklund and Baugh. "I thought Vicki came in and gave us a great lift in that first half, did a lot of good things for us. And Angie made a couple of huge shots in the second half.

"She has done a better job of really being more aggressive off the dribble. I thought in this game, she created some shots. It wasn't necessarily that the offense created for her, but she was really looking to score. Especially late in the second half. I think that speaks to her maturity."

Yes, Bjorklund had a late turnover when she was tied up by Joy Cheek, and on the ensuing Duke possession Abby Waner tied the game with a 3-pointer. But consider that of Tennessee's 23 turnovers, Bjorklund had just two. Baugh had five … but Parker and Hornbuckle combined for 10. That shows you how aggressive and effective Duke's defense was for a lot of the game.

For Parker, so much in the spotlight at all times, it was a so-so game by her standards. She was 4 of 13 from the field for 17 points. She also led the team in two other statistics, one positive (12 rebounds) and one negative (six turnovers).

[+] EnlargeAlexis Hornbuckle
AP Photo/Sara D. DavisAlexis Hornbuckle didn't have a great stat line, but coach Pat Summitt credits Hornbuckle's leadership for the sure-footed performances of the Lady Vols freshmen.

But, again, who got the big basket with 22 seconds left? Parker, who said afterward how much she wants the ball in her hands in those situations. However, there was a previous "huge" basket that came at critical juncture for Tennessee -- and Parker could only watch that one fly and say, "Oh, gosh."

Tennessee was up by just two with five and a half minutes left when the Duke crowd fooled Bjorklund with the old counting-down-the-shot-clock trick. She had plenty of time. But not realizing that, she launched a desperation-type 3-pointer. And …

"It went in," Parker said. "We had to tell her in the locker room the shot clock was more than [she thought]. She still didn't know."

But, all teasing aside, Parker said of the rookies, "Vicki came in and just played her butt off. She did what we needed her to do. Whether it was get a bucket or keep the ball alive or grab a rebound or make a defensive stop. And Angie, she's that steady player that's going to hit a shot when the defense comes off her. And she had a tough defensive assignment tonight, too. I'm really proud of my freshmen."

There are characteristics you must have to succeed at Tennessee, but you really must have them in abundance to succeed when you're a freshman. Summitt joked later that she yells at Bjorklund so much in practice that the kid might think that hers is the only name Summitt knows.

Bjorklund, a 6-foot guard/forward from Spokane Valley, Wash., looks the part of a Tennessee player -- not just with her skills, but her on-court personality.

"I mean, I did enjoy it," Bjorklund said of being on the side of the "bad guys" at Cameron. "The upperclassmen kind of gave us a hint of what it was going to be like, but they said, 'You've just got to be able to go in and play in it to really know.'

"I liked it. At times it was tough, but we had tight huddles. We were on the same page a lot of the time. That helped a lot. It was a fun environment."

Speaking of which … the Crazies did their job: They were loud and supportive, but they didn't tick off Summitt this time. In 2006, they targeted Hornbuckle the entire game, shaking Wal-Mart bags and taunting her about a misdemeanor shoplifting arrest at that store while she was still in high school.

Hornbuckle played poorly in that game, and Summitt was upset about how her player was treated. She told Knoxville News Sentinel writer Dan Fleser before the game that she might consider ending the series with Duke if the Crazies went overboard again.

Well, they did chant "Wal-Mart" and "Mis-de-meanor" at times at Hornbuckle, but not all night. They did a chopping motion and chanted "Bobbitt" when Shannon Bobbitt had the ball. And we're going to assume you can guess what infamous, um, cutting act they were referring to, which of course had absolutely nothing in the world to do with "Shannon" Bobbitt.

But Summitt said she didn't notice anything over the line about the Crazies. When asked about them making fun of her for wearing green, she said, "Good. I'll wear it next time when we come back."

So it seems safe to assume Tennessee will come back, and the series will remain in place. The next time for these two teams in Cameron, Bjorklund and Baugh will be juniors. Summitt said she couldn't take any credit for their poise Monday, instead giving that to her veteran players Parker, Hornbuckle, Bobbitt and Nicky Anosike for showing the rookies the ropes.

"It's basically taking them and saying, 'Here's how we do things at Tennessee' and helping them in practice and games," Summitt said. "I think about the future and how young we're going to be … but also about what our upperclassmen have given to the youth on our team to make sure that they are where they need to be."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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