Parker, Lady Vols execute down stretch to reach final
CLEVELAND -- As effortless as Tennessee's Candace Parker can make things look on the court sometimes, let's remember that getting to her first NCAA title game hasn't been easy for her.
She had an ACL injury in high school, then more knee problems before what would have been her freshman year in Knoxville, 2004-05. So she had to redshirt and watch as Tennessee went to the 2005 Final Four in Indianapolis, then lost a 16-point lead in the semifinals and fell to Michigan State by four points.
Last season, Parker led her team to the regional finals in Cleveland, but the Lady Vols suffered a 12-point loss to North Carolina.
Now, as a sophomore, Parker was expected to get it done in 2007. The Orange faithful expected it. She expected it of herself.
However, with eight minutes left Sunday, it looked as if the drought would continue. Tennessee won three titles in a row from 1996-98 but has been to the Final Four five subsequent times without winning a championship.
Would it be a sixth trip with no title? Well, that might still happen, because Tennessee has to face red-hot Rutgers in Tuesday's championship game. But with a 56-50 come-from-behind win over North Carolina, Tennessee kept alive the hope for the program's seventh NCAA title. The Lady Vols' six titles are just ahead of Connecticut, which has five.
"We were looking back at each other and just saying, 'All the stuff that we have been through, to get to this point and not seize the moment would be just a total waste,'" Parker said. "We just really wanted it. Everybody on the floor, on the bench and in the stands wanted it. And when you have that, it's hard not to fight for your team."
Of course, athletes say things like this after games all the time, and they rarely really make much sense. Tennessee didn't want this any more than North Carolina did. But what Parker and her teammates did do was execute at the end of the game better than the Tar Heels.
It helped that Tennessee had all of its starters on the floor, while North Carolina lost Camille Little and LaToya Pringle to fouls and -- for a minute and a half -- Rashanda McCants to an apparent leg cramp. It's a little easier to execute when your starting five is facing their starting two.
Nonetheless, Tennessee still had to get it done, and that's what happened. Everybody in orange made something happen in the last eight minutes of the game.
Alexis Hornbuckle penetrated and scored. She and Shannon Bobbitt pressured the Tar Heels into mistakes on the perimeter. Nicky Anosike hit five free throws and scored on a putback. She played fabulous defense, as did Sidney Spencer, helping hold Erlana Larkins to four points on 2-of-4 shooting. Spencer drew a charge that was Little's fifth foul. Parker drew Pringle's fifth foul and had six points in the last five minutes.
For the game, Tennessee shot 27 percent from the field to North Carolina's 35.1 percent. Tennessee won at the foul line, going 20-of-26 to North Carolina's 6-for-8.
Ultimately, this game simply wasn't very visually appealing. But Tennessee coach Pat Summitt wasn't apologizing for that afterward.
"I am not the least bit concerned about that style of play," Summitt said. "I think people that understand basketball would have a great deal of respect for the intensity and the defense that these two teams brought to the court."
Sure you can have a lot of respect for it. But that doesn't mean it's fun to watch. North Carolina entered the Final Four averaging 84.6 points per game, Tennessee 74.5. And the final score was 56-50. Sorry, that's just gross.
But credit Tennessee's defense for putting such a clamp on Carolina. And Parker has helped set the tone for that defense, which has been a goal of hers and of Summitt's.
Parker talked Saturday about how she'd become a better defensive player, mentioning her experience last fall with the U.S. national team.
"The international game is really different, and defensively I was asked to guard some of the best posts in the world, like [Maria] Stepanova," Parker said. "And I [learned] how to guard up-and-under moves. International players are constantly going toward the basket, they have a continuous pivot. It was cool to see that different style of play."
It helped make Parker ready for anything she has faced this season. Sunday, she had 14 points -- tying her for the team high with Anosike -- and 13 rebounds. On Tuesday, she tries to join so many Tennessee greats who've won titles. Tennessee is in its 12th NCAA championship game but remember, 1998 was the last time the Orange Crush won it all.
"I think everybody wearing orange will say it's been way too long," Parker said. "I'm tired of going into Thompson-Boling Arena and playing on The Summitt [court] and not looking up and seeing a banner that has all our names written all over it."Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.