Parker, post battle to determine Sunday's semifinal
CLEVELAND -- So what happens when two teams that are a nightmare to guard face each other? Who ends up having the worst nightmare?
The team that has to guard Tennessee's Candace Parker, one part of your brain says. Sure, of course. But, your brain also wonders, what about the team that has to guard Erlana Larkins and her North Carolina co-horts Camille Little, LaToya Pringle and Rashanda McCants?
And wait a minute, you add, don't forget that Tennessee has Nicky Anosike, Sidney Spencer, Alex Fuller and Dominique Redding. Yeah, but North Carolina can bring in Jessica Breland and Iman McFarland.
All these people 6 feet, 1 inch or taller are going to be battling it out inside, scrambling for loose balls, elbowing for position in roller derby-like fashion, a bunch of uber-athletes jumping over each other
Uh, not quite, Spencer said about that last one for her against the Tar Heels.
"For sure, it's about getting early position," she said. "Knowing the shot's probably going to go up here, or it's getting late in the shot clock so start boxing out. Because there's no way I can jump with them."
Few can, although Parker is one. Saturday was kind of a coronation day for her, as she became the first sophomore to win the Wade Trophy and also was named a Kodak All-American for the second straight season. That was a big deal, but Parker wasn't thinking much about all the individual hardware.
She has been to the Final Four before, but was just an observer. In 2005, redshirting what would have been her freshman season with a knee injury, she had to watch as Tennessee let a 16-point lead get away in a semifinal loss to Michigan State.
Alex Fuller was there with Parker, also forced into being a spectator because of knee problems that season. So was Spencer, who had suffered a torn ACL in late February that year.
"I remember sitting on the bench next to Sidney and Alex, and we were wishing to be on the floor," Parker said. "We were happy to just do warm-ups with the team; we were excited about that. But to actually be on the floor when the horn sounds and the whistle blows on Sunday, we'll know we played in the Final Four and gave it everything we had. That's what we need to do."
Parker said last year's 75-63 loss to North Carolina in the regional final here in Cleveland stung badly. She had 20 points, nine rebounds and three assists in that game -- but also eight turnovers.
"I think it really drove us to get better this summer," Parker said.
But then the 70-57 loss to North Carolina in Chapel Hill this past December was hardly the revenge Tennessee was looking for.
"That game opened our eyes a little bit," said Parker, still frustrated despite 27 points and 10 rebounds in that game. "We had beaten some teams, and were feeling pretty good about ourselves. That turned it around real quick."
Spencer said the following days were not so pleasant in Knoxville.
"I remember the stretch of practices after we lost to North Carolina were probably the toughest of my career," Spencer said. "Not strictly because they were defensive practices, but because we upped our intensity and got in a lot better shape.
"We were exposed a lot, especially our transition defense. We made a lot of mental mistakes. And rebounding goodness, we got killed on the boards."
(Aside: Don't you just love Southerners like Alabama native Spencer? They are so cute. Would anybody from anywhere else say, "Goodness, we got killed on the boards?")
North Carolina's rebounding edge in that game was 43-33. So if Tennessee's players learned about playing better transition defense and got it drilled into their skulls once again to REBOUND (!!!!!!), then what did North Carolina learn?
It will be really hard trying to beat Parker and Co. for a third time in a row. Larkins was asked to detail everything that makes Parker, in particular, so difficult to stop.
"Her versatility," Larkins said. "And her length -- she is unbelievably long. That's a good thing for her. It's not so good for me, because if she's guarding me, I have to do some extra things.
"She can get out there and do some of those things that guards can do, and she also does things forwards can do."
And she does stuff centers can do. One can assume if there were another position in basketball, Parker would do that well, too.
There's a certain "air" to great players when they're hitting on all cylinders. It's kind of hard to find the right words for it, but you know exactly what it looks like: as if all other players on the court -- no matter how good they are -- are running a little slower, jumping a little lower and moving a little less gracefully. That's what it was like watching Parker against Ole Miss in the Dayton Regional final.
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"In our Ole Miss game, she was terrific," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "I think that's because she really wanted to be here in Cleveland."
So did her teammates, who were pretty hard on themselves after that loss last season to North Carolina.
"It's almost like it's just assumed: 'Tennessee is going to the Final Four' -- but we learned last year. We had a reality check," Anosike said. "You can't just rely on the name 'Tennessee' that's been built over the years. You actually have to do something to back it up."
Losing in the regional final isn't exactly not backing it up; Anosike's point is that Tennessee's standards are just that high.
But right now, North Carolina's standards and expectations are right up there, too. Tennessee's program has put itself in position to win a championship many more times than has North Carolina. But the Tar Heels this year -- and we haven't even mentioned point guard Ivory Latta yet -- are just as certain as Tennessee that they can win it all.
"This is my last chance, and I want to be sure I leave a mark," Little said.
She means on the game, not on anybody's arm or anything but that's likely going to happen, too. The paint is never a place for the faint of heart in Division I basketball, but it's really going to be difficult in there when these two teams mix it up Sunday.
And somebody really is going to be the "worst" nightmare for the other.Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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