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The tournament's other favorite

3/20/2006

SUNDAY NOTES

Cappie Pondexter cutting through defenders and banking in a pull-up jumper from the block. Matee Ajavon running ahead of defenders desperately trying to just keep her within reach. Kia Vaughn grabbing rebounds right and left. And nobody in a green uniform getting anything resembling an open look at the basket.

Everything was right in the world again for Rutgers.

Too bad it only lasted for four minutes.

Playing for the first time since losing to lowly West Virginia in the Big East tournament 13 days earlier, C. Vivian Stringer's team jumped out to a 13-0 lead on Dartmouth in a first-round game in Trenton, N.J. Granted, the Ivy League champs weren't expected to offer much resistance -- they dropped a first-round game against Connecticut by 48 points last year -- but any kind of easy win would help erase memories of the loss that likely cost Rutgers a No. 1 or 2 seed.

But when Dartmouth cut the lead to three with the ball and less than a minute to play in the game, it was Rutgers' 16-0 record in the conference regular season that was quickly vanishing from memory. The Scarlet Knights, aided by a dubious offensive foul on Dartmouth shooting star Angie Soriaga, pulled out the 63-58 victory, but it was an effort that took winning "ugly" to a whole new level.

The scary thing for Rutgers fans ought to be that, unlike the West Virginia game, the outcome wasn't entirely dictated by poor efforts on the part of Stringer's players. In particular, Ajavon bounced back from a poor Big East tournament performance with one of her best offensive outings. The sophomore finished with 19 points and capably handled point guard duties on occasion, freeing up Pondexter to play on the wing.

If Ajavon produces points and Pondexter scores like she's supposed to (team-leading 22 points against Dartmouth), other title contenders, never mind the Ivy League champs, shouldn't be within three points of Rutgers.

And while Stringer might disagree, Rutgers wasn't that bad on defense. The Big Green shot 39 percent from the floor and 37 percent from behind the arc. Neither number suggests Dartmouth had its way on the offensive end, but they show exactly how much the Scarlet Knights count on defensive excellence. Being merely good isn't enough for a team that wins by taking away every ounce of comfort an offense is used to having.

After the game, Stringer sounded as optimistic as a coach could be after nearly seeing her team become the first No. 3 seed to lose a first-round game. The coach told ESPN, "We're glad we won, but let's call this rusty after two weeks. Hopefully we can be much better, because if we don't, we're going to be in trouble."

The problem is Stringer offered a similar take after surviving a tough game against Villanova in the Big East quarterfinals. And in that case, her warning turned out to be prophetic.

Two weeks ago, Rutgers looked like a potential No. 1 seed and a legitimate national title contender. After games against Villanova, West Virginia and Dartmouth, the Scarlet Knights look like a flawed No. 3 seed.

ALL PARKER …

Mechelle Voepel, ESPN.com

OK, now she's got the dunk(s) checked off the list …

Tennessee's Candace Parker threw it down twice against Army on Sunday. Then afterward both she and coach Pat Summitt talked about it being a relief to "get it over with" and "get it out of the way."

I'm not sure how this great athletic move got turned into the equivalent of an IRS audit, but I suppose they didn't really mean it that way. Seems like Tennessee really is excited about Parker's feat, considering the headline on the school's Web site reads: "Candace Parker Dunks Twice as Lady Vols Roll to 102-51 Win Over Army."

The dunk has such a weird history in women's basketball. Weird in that Georgeann Wells did it two decades ago, then Charlotte Smith a decade ago, then Michelle Snow in the early part of this decade and now Candace Parker … and I keep wondering when it will stop being the athletic equivalent of a grand parlor trick and really make that firm step toward the commonplace in the women's game.

OK, maybe not "common" -- but certainly not rare. All along, I've thought the mental barriers to dunking have been a bigger deal than the physical ones. What I mean is, for the players who do have the physical capability.

For the majority of women's players, dunking is something they never even think about -- anymore than they'd think about jumping over the rim. It's just not an option, and they don't waste one second of time "working" on it.

However, those players who physically can do it are plagued with doubt about when they should even try. For example, here's what Parker said after Sunday's game: "I'm just going to approach the games like I've normally done it, and I'm not going to force anything. If it's a close game, no way, I will make the best decision for the team. I just thought it brought energy, and I'm not pressured to do it again."

Surely, Parker wasn't suggesting that when she dunked Sunday it wasn't the best decision for the team. If she can dunk, that is a high-percentage shot. That's good for your team. So why not do it in a close game?

I would assume it comes down to the fact that Parker still believes a lot more in her ability to make a layup than to dunk. And that's totally fine.

Don't think I'm criticizing her in anyway whatsoever. Maybe she'll feel differently as her career goes on and maybe she won't. That's something only someone of her athletic skill can determine.

Either way, she's still going to be one of the greatest players of her era. The ability to dunk got her four points on Sunday -- all the rest of her abilities added up to 22 more points, five rebounds, seven assists, four blocks and two steals. Wow, you look at that and you could almost wonder what the fuss about dunking is.

Well, it's really cool … that's what it is. And when you can do it, it's a smart play and an exciting one.

But the next real "step" -- if you will -- in the so-called "dunk evolution" in the women's college game is the player who says after she does it, "Well, of course I dunked. I can dunk. And next time I get an opening, I will dunk again. And the next time after that, I will do it again. And the next time …"

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach her at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

… ALL THE TIME

Graham Hays, ESPN.com

Candace Parker might have been the story of the day in the NCAA Tournament.

The dunk in women's basketball has long been a spectacle that means more to people who don't follow the game than those who do. The women's game isn't played above the rim, and the few instances of a player dunking were at best aberrations, and at worst, contrived sideshows.

But Parker's dunk was different. She dunked in the flow of the action, with a defender in close proximity, and with the outcome of an NCAA Tournament game still very much in doubt.

Parker's dunk is important not because she got her hand above the rim and scored two points by pushing the ball through the hoop, but because it highlights the player at the forefront of an athletic revolution in women's basketball.

Just as the physical training and conditioning that once made Tiger Woods stand alone in the world of pro golf are now par for the course, Parker's unique brand of athleticism is a sign of things to come in women's basketball.

Parker can rise above the rim to dunk, but at 6 feet, 3 inches, she can also run the Lady Vols from the point or guard the opposing center on defense. And those last two displays of athleticism are at least as impressive, if not as highlight-worthy, as her vertical skills.

Still, Parker's dunks, 26 points and career-best seven assists might not have been the most important development for her own team.

For those seeking a gauge on how Tennessee will ultimately fare in a region Pat Summitt wanted no part of, Alexis Hornbuckle's line of three points, seven rebounds and three assists was just as informative as Parker's brilliance.

Hornbuckle's availability for the postseason came as something of a surprise; she missed just seven games after breaking a bone in her hand against Vanderbilt on Feb. 12.

Playing with a soft cast to protect the screw now lodged at the base of the thumb on her right hand, Hornbuckle missed her first shot after coming off the bench against Army but spent the rest of her minutes proving she can be more than just an inspirational boost.

By winning the SEC tournament, Tennessee proved it could compete for a national title with Shanna Zolman and Parker running the offense.

But Hornbuckle's return at point guard gives the Lady Vols the best of both worlds, with Zolman and Parker distributing the ball better than ever but now freed from the pressure of constantly playing out of position.

Even with a day far quieter than her high-flying teammate, Hornbuckle showed that a region already loaded with contenders just got a little tougher.

MORE ON PARKER'S DUNK

Even Summitt excited
Pat Summitt doesn't do excited. But even Tennessee's coach was smiling after Candace Parker's dunks Sunday.

Dunks a game changer
The few instances of a woman dunking were at best aberrations, and at worst, contrived sideshows. Candace Parker changed all that Sunday.

Experts' take
Anyone who has a problem with Parker dunking is the grinch that stole March Madness. It shows off her athleticism, and that's what we love about sports.