Five Final Four observations

Originally Published: March 22, 2007
By Nancy Lieberman | ESPN.com

ESPN.com asked analyst Nancy Lieberman for five observations from Saturday's practices and interviews at the Final Four.

Sylvia Fowles
Mark Duncan/AP PhotoLSU's Sylvia Fowles dunked several times in practice Saturday.
Most impressive player: There's a lot of talent on the floor here in Cleveland. Three of the 10 members of the Kodak All-America team that was unveiled Saturday morning will be on the court when the games tip off (ESPN, 7 ET). And though Candace Parker took top honors (she was awarded the Wade Trophy) on Saturday, Sylvia Fowles was the most fun player to watch in practice.

Saturday's sessions were open to fans, and Fowles gave them what they wanted. She dunked four times -- all of them one-handed off her left foot. The 6-foot-6 junior center has amazing skills and just makes it all look effortless.

Though she's eligible to enter Wednesday's WNBA draft, Fowles on Saturday said she will return for her senior season at LSU. Much has been made in recent days about Fowles' eligibility; the country has paid close attention to Parker's draft status (she also has said she'll come back for her junior season at Tennessee), but Fowles hadn't received the same media attention.

In fact, when first asked about the draft on Saturday, Fowles said she didn't realize she was eligible. And besides, "I don't think my mom would let me leave school," she added.

Speaking of, for the first time in Fowles' college career, her mother, Arrittio Fowles, will see her daughter play in person for the first time on Sunday.

Heels having fun: All four teams look relaxed but businesslike during their practice sessions Saturday. But at times, one looked … giddy.

From the moment North Carolina's players emerged from their locker room, the Tar Heels were laughing and seemed to have a really low-key, down-to-earth attitude. Ivory Latta was her usual flamboyant self. Erlana Larkins was in near hysterics. Her laughter is infectious and she brings a lightheartedness to the Tar Heels that really seemed to put them at ease Saturday.

That might not make a difference come Sunday, but it certainly can't help to keep things light considering the pressures of trying to win a national title.

And Ivory Latta just keeps winning over fans. Her friendships with celebrities like LeBron James and rapper/actor Ludacris are well-documented. At the Dallas Regional last week, former UNC star and Milwaukee Bucks rookie David Noel, and his teammate, eight-year NBA veteran Earl Boykins, took time out to attend a Tar Heels' game. Heck, when I was at a Dallas Mavericks game last week, Jerry Stackhouse, another former UNC standout, pulled me aside and told me to wish Latta and UNC good luck.

Now, comedian Pat Williams is on board. Latta said she has been texting with him and that Williams says he's coming to Sunday's game to root for the Tar Heels.

Playing nice: It's an unfortunate but true fact that, with all the competition among today's coaches, a lot of them just don't get along all that well. But this year's group of head coaches consists of some very good friends.

Tennessee's Pat Summitt, North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell and Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer have known each other for decades. It makes for a very fun, if not unusual, atmosphere, to see them taking every opportunity to speak with each other, even if it's a couple seconds as one's heading on the court while the other leads her team off. There's simply no animosity with this group.

Even acting LSU head coach Bob Starkey -- the only male among them -- fits right in. On Saturday, Starkey recalled meeting Stringer for the first time many years ago when he was just an AAU coach, and how the two have remained friends ever since. Hatchell was a graduate assistant for Summitt back when she was at Tennessee-Martin.

The coaches aren't shy about borrowing each other's tactics, either. During the regional semifinals and final, Stringer collected her players' cell phones to keep them from being distracted. Summitt's doing the same here in Cleveland.

But what about Summitt's cell phone?

"You can take my phone away," Summitt said, "just give me a scissor, because I want to cut down the net."

Stringer, by the way, looks more relaxed than ever, and was expected to reunite with dozens of former players from her Cheyney State, Iowa and 2000 Rutgers teams on Saturday night.

What a way to wake up: Summitt's day Saturday began at 5 a.m.

But there was no wake-up call. No alarm to shut off. Just one thought.

"I woke up thinking about Candace Parker," Summitt said. "So when I saw her later, I told Candace, 'I am so glad you chose Tennessee and not someone else.' I wanted her to know that."

And that spurred an important recollection from Summitt about her time spent recruiting Parker. Summitt was visiting Parker in her parents' Naperville, Ill., home, and had an uneasy feeling that someone had been telling the recruit negative things about the Lady Vols' program.

"Did something happen?" Summitt asked Parker.

But as the conversation stalled, Summitt's stomach took off. She grabbed some cherry-flavored Alka-Seltzer from her bag and asked for a glass of water. Summitt pointed to the water and asked Parker what color it was.

"Clear," Parker responded.

Then Summitt added the medicine to the water, which of course turned it red and perhaps even somewhat murky.

"See this?" Summitt asked. "That's how I feel. Someone's diluted our program."

Parker looked Summitt in the eye, said, "That's amazing," and committed to Tennessee shortly after.

Quite a comparison: Everybody from Summitt to my colleagues at ESPN were bestowing compliments on Parker on Saturday. But this one was the best. Coaching legend Billie Moore said she hasn't seen a post player like Candace Parker since Nera White, a Naismith Hall of Famer who played in the 1950s for Nashville Business College.

For those of you who have never heard about her, White largely is regarded as the game's most complete player, way ahead of her time and a 10-time AAU Tournament champion and MVP. Some says she's the Babe Ruth of women's basketball. Now that's a compliment.

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.

Nancy Lieberman

Basketball analyst / Writer
Nancy Lieberman, one of the most recognized individuals in women's basketball, is a men's and women's basketball analyst for ESPN. She works on ESPN and ESPN2's coverage of men's and women's college basketball, plus the WNBA and writes for ESPN.com.

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