Commentary

Two-year plan pays dividends for Parker, Summitt

Updated: April 9, 2008, 3:04 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- For what's supposedly one of the most difficult feats in all of athletics, repeating a championship certainly proved easy enough for the University of Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeCandace Parker and Pat Summitt
David Butler II/US PresswireCandace Parker and Pat Summitt combined to produce two titles in as many years for Tennessee.

Apparently it helps when you know where you're going.

Behind 13 points from Shannon Bobbitt, 12 points from Nicky Anosike and 17 points from Candace Parker in the final hours of her college career, Tennessee captured its second consecutive national championship with a 64-48 win over Stanford.

It was the Cardinal who entered with momentum after two of the most impressive wins of this season's NCAA tournament against Maryland and Connecticut and one of the most memorable individual runs ever from Candice Wiggins, but it was the Lady Vols who looked at home from the outset in front of a sea of orange-clad fans.

Stanford scored first on a 3-pointer from Wiggins, much as she had sliced to the basket against a flat-footed Connecticut defense to open the scoring Sunday. But unlike in the semifinal, the waters soon rose over the Cardinal's heads instead of parting before them.

In the span of four minutes early in the first half, Stanford committed six turnovers and watched Tennessee turn a 5-4 deficit into a 15-7 lead. The space previously plentiful when pinpoint passing and backdoor cuts put defenders on their heels in earlier rounds vanished. When Alberta Auguste picked up a foul for a handcheck against Wiggins 25 feet from the basket, she just raised her hand in recognition and waited for the inbounds -- as if to suggest the officials might occasionally let the Cardinal borrow an inch, but the Lady Vols were always waiting to reclaim it.

By the time it was over, Stanford had committed 25 turnovers -- its most in two-and-a-half seasons. Tara VanDerveer's team showed its spirit in keeping the game within reach until the closing minutes, but it essentially was playing for pride during much of that effort.

Stanford tried its best to get the early edge, but it was never going to happen.

The Lady Vols arrived at the St. Pete Times Forum about 70 minutes before the scheduled tip of Tuesday's championship game. Stanford was already out on the court going through the early stages of its pregame routine as the defending champs strolled to their locker room. But despite arriving second, Tennessee had Tampa on the mind first.

Five months before the Final Four, Tennessee made the same trip to the same arena for a game against an Oklahoma team ranked in the top 10. Then, as now, the focus before the game was on Parker's matching up against one of the would-be contenders for her throne atop the women's game. But whether it was Courtney Paris in November or Wiggins in April, the story coming out of the game was about another win for Tennessee.

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
David Butler II/US PresswirePat Summitt turned to two junior-college players to help her get the Lady Vols back to the title game.

The Lady Vols wouldn't have won two titles without Parker, the best player in the women's game, but she wouldn't have won them without the perfect supporting cast for the sport's most versatile talent. This Tennessee team wasn't built to live up to the championships of old; it was built specifically and spectacularly for the past two seasons.

"I feel like when you come to a major D-I program, you're playing with all All-Americans," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "And so you have to buy into a system that's already built. And you just have to find a niche. Some of us, it's scoring, some of it's defense, some of it's strictly rebounding. But when you put it all together, we're a strong force. That's what happened over the years."

After a loss to North Carolina in the 2006 Elite Eight ended a run of four consecutive Final Four appearances, Pat Summitt's program was at what passes for a crossroads by Knoxville standards. It had been eight seasons, two full recruiting cycles, since the last of three consecutive national championships, and even after a knee injury delayed its start, the clock was already ticking on Candace Parker's time in orange.

On the recommendation of assistant Dean Lockwood, who had himself just finished his second year on the staff, Summitt added Bobbitt, a pint-sized point guard out of Trinity Valley Community College. And after listening to the sales pitch from assistant Nikki Caldwell, she added Auguste from Central Florida Community College.

It was the first time since 1977 that Summitt restocked with junior-college players.

And without diminishing the contributions of someone like Sidney Spencer last season or Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh this season, those moves completed the foundation for a renewal. A point guard who didn't need the ball in her hands all the time to be successful, Bobbitt freed Hornbuckle to roam the wings on both ends of the court. And Auguste, despite limited numbers for much of her stay, came up biggest when asked to patch a hole in the starting lineup entering the postseason this year.

"I don't think we could have won without those two," Hornbuckle said. "Shannon did a great job coming in, being a true point guard, wreaking havoc on defense with her speed. Everybody sees her size as a disadvantage, but she finds every way possible to use it to her advantage. And [Auguste] came in and struggled kind of in the beginning, but picked it up when it was necessary. Postseason, she was just full throttle -- knocking down buckets, getting stops, rebounding, crashing the boards. Everything she did last year, she did all throughout this year."

When Parker arrived four years ago, many expected Summitt would add multiple championships to her legacy. But it was a perfect two-year plan that added up to titles No. 7 and 8 for the coach and her program.

"They drove me crazy a lot of days," Summitt said, "but I love this group, and I'm so proud for them."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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