Summitt, Parker carry Lady Vols to Cleveland
After 33 seasons, Pat Summitt still wins because she changes with the times. And in lifting Tennessee to its 17th Final Four, who better to help the coach carry the past into the present than Candace Parker?
DAYTON, Ohio -- Pat Summitt owns as impressive a past as any person in the history of women's college basketball. Candace Parker has as bright a future as one could possibly imagine. All of which makes the intersection of those two time lines a pretty good place to call the present for the Tennessee Lady Volunteers.
With Parker putting on a display for the ages with 24 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks, and Summitt pushing all the right buttons from the sideline, Tennessee rolled to its 17th Final Four with a breaktakingly dominant 98-62 win over Mississippi.
Parker's first trip to the Final Four as an active player (she was on the team that went to Indianapolis in 2005 but redshirted with a knee injury) will provide Summitt with an opportunity to win her seventh national championship, and the intersection of past and future proved to be the sound track of the night in Dayton.
But one year before the song began its evolution from cutting-edge funk hit to pep band staple, a 22-year-old Summitt beat Middle Tennessee for her first win as head coach of the Lady Vols. Little did she imagine at that time a world in which her 6-foot-4 All-American would dribble through a full-court press, swat shots into the first row of the stands, spin on a dime before soaring under the basket for a reverse layup and generally own the boards.
"Did I think I'd see that? No," Summitt said with a chuckle. "When I started coaching, we had a point guard, we had a 2 guard, and we tried to find a good 3 player who could play on the wing. Then we had two post players that were not that mobile. They could catch and pivot and shoot, and that was about it. You didn't want them to dribble."
Evolution used to be a touchy subject in the state that conducted the Scopes trial, but the basketball version is impossible to argue when comparing that picture with everything Parker can do on the court.
"Of all our players that I have coached, the thing I'll say about Candace is she can play more positions more effectively than anyone else," Summitt said. "I mean, [Chamique] Holdsclaw was so good under pressure, and I'm seeing Candace respond the same way. But her handles, her leaping ability, she's long, rangy, she can shoot on the face-up, she can post up, she can shoot off the dribble. There's so many dimensions to her game."
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"It just seemed like everything we did, Tennessee did it better," Mississippi coach Carol Ross said.
Mississippi's press confounded every point guard that tried to break it in the first three rounds, forcing 26 turnovers per game in wins against TCU, Maryland and Oklahoma. But there was little the defense could do to distract Tennessee point guard Shannon Bobbitt, considering she spent many of the game's opening minutes patiently spotted up in the corners -- she had two 3-pointers inside of the first 64 seconds -- while Parker broke the press by dribbling through it or using her lofty perspective to see over it and make the right passes.
After breaking down the defending national champions and the Big 12 tournament champions, Mississippi could muster just 15 turnovers and seven points off those turnovers against the Lady Vols.
"I think we wanted [Parker] in the middle of the press, and it just so happened that she handled the ball, probably a little bit more than we had anticipated," longtime Tennessee assistant Holly Warlick said. "We thought we would throw over the press to her, but she brought it up quite a bit. She was a good weapon for us, and we attacked their press and got them out of it pretty early."
It's a nice luxury to have when your dominant post player can improvise by bringing the ball up the court against one of the nation's best defenses. But more than good fortune, it's also an indication of how Summitt continues to evolve after 33 seasons on the bench. Plenty of coaches with her record of success -- if there were any coaches with her record of success -- would expect players, even prized recruits, to fit into an established system. Summitt continues to pile up wins by changing with the times.
"I think we've adjusted our offense to allow Candace, or our big players, to come away from the basket," Warlick said. "Because that's part of Candace's strengths, and we'd be crazy not to utilize that, and her penetrating to the basket from the high post. So I think we've adjusted to the talent that we have. We used to be just a pound it inside, pound it inside, and now we still go inside but we do a lot of inside-out things. And we allow each kid to try and stay in their game and take advantage of what they do best."
And as much as we marvel at Parker's amazing skills on the court, Tennessee players marvel at the skills their coach displays on the sideline.
No one better put that into words than senior Elizabeth Curry, a coach in waiting herself.
"Coach Summitt -- I mean, I'm a little biased, but she's the best in the game," Curry said. "And then Candace, she's not even done playing yet, and she's arguably right up there. So to get to see Pat and her interact, and you talk about a star player and a star coach -- how she can handle the game and how Coach can call the game from the sideline -- it's a unique opportunity that I'm trying to take everything I can from."
If Tennessee plays the way it did on Tuesday night, Curry and the rest of the senior class might get two more chances to marvel in celebration at the intersection of time and space that has brought the sport's past and future together in a particularly brilliant present. It's a fleeting opportunity that even Parker, with everything awaiting her in the years ahead, wants to savor.
"That's why I came here, to play for her," Parker said. "She has my respect. She's the face of women's basketball, and I just want to take everything she says and use it, because my days are limited with her."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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