Commentary

Determined and always tough, Tennessee wills itself to Tampa

Updated: April 2, 2008, 12:43 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Pat Summitt stopped on a dime to pick up a penny. Her 18th Final Four berth secured -- not without considerable drama -- Summitt was walking back to Tennessee's locker room Tuesday night. In a not-all-that-brightly-lit hallway of the Ford Center, Summitt still spotted the coin.

Good grief, does she miss anything?

"Let's see if it's head's up," Summitt said, then tossed it back on the floor. "Nope. It's tails."

She's not in need of spare change, but she is a bit superstitious. However, maybe that penny was proof that Tennessee doesn't need luck. This program will be going for its eighth NCAA title because of its sheer gritty toughness. Top-seeded Tennessee beat 2-seed Texas A&M 53-45, with star Candace Parker missing 10 minutes of the game because of a dislocated shoulder suffered with 3:50 left in the first half after she had stolen the ball.

Parker left the game, came back, dislocated the shoulder again, left the game again, the second half started … and No. 3 wasn't on the floor. During halftime, Tennessee trainer Jenny Moshak started doing muscle activation exercises with Parker. Then there was the hunt for a sleeve to put on the shoulder.

"I think they were under the bus going through laundry to find the sleeve," Summitt said, "and I'm about to have a fit as to why we don't have it right there."

Summitt had her own shoulder dislocation a few weeks ago in a battle with a raccoon on her back deck in Knoxville.

"Mine went right back in," Summitt joked. "So I thought if at my age I can come back, she'll be back. That flashed through my head. When I saw Jenny go right to Candace, I thought she would be able to return.

"What bothered me was when it went out the second time. That really scared me, and I thought, 'She may be finished for the game.'"

And at that juncture, Parker pretty much was the game offensively for Tennessee. She had 18 first-half points on 9-of-12 shooting. Texas A&M, a team that prides itself on defense, just couldn't stop her.

[+] EnlargeCandace Parker
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonTennessee's Candace Parker is attended to by coach Pat Summitt, center, and trainer Jenny Moshak after Parker dislocated her left shoulder in the first half.

It looked instead as if an injury would.

Parker has had this happen before, but she said this was the first time she couldn't pop her shoulder back in by herself.

"I was just looking for somebody to give the ball to," she said as she grimaced with pain, her arm hanging oddly. "Then I kinda rushed the recovery and came back and reinjured it."

Parker wasn't able to re-enter the game in the second half until the 10:39 mark. But she wasn't worried. While her shoulder was being worked on, she watched the game on TV and saw that her teammates were holding their own without her. They're the defending national champions, so you might say they are supposed to be able to do that against a program that was in its first Elite Eight.

But there have been questions all season about whether Tennessee was too dependent on Parker. But fellow starters Alexis Hornbuckle, Shannon Bobbitt, Alberta Auguste and Nicky Anosike are seniors, too. And they were determined they could win even if their leading scorer wasn't with them.

Before the second half started, Anosike gathered her teammates to deliver a little pep talk. Asked about it later, Anosike didn't seem to recall what was said. Hornbuckle jumped in, "Nicky was doing all the talking, so I don't know how she doesn't remember.

"Basically, she looked all of us in the eyes and said, 'The only way we can do this is with defense, and we have to stay positive.' And everyone responded well."

Texas A&M had its chance to go against Tennessee without Parker -- and the Aggies still couldn't dent the Orange Crush. When Parker came back into the game in the second half, the score was tied at 36. A&M had missed an opportunity to get some separation with Parker not on the floor.

"When she was out, we wanted to push the tempo more and attack the basket more," Texas A&M's Takia Starks said.

But Tennessee really didn't let A&M do much of either. The Aggies probably felt as though they were wearing orange because that color was in their faces so much.

"For the basketball purists out there, it was great defense from both teams," Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. "The second half, we did a better job of running our stuff. But we couldn't score."

Aggies guard A'Quonesia Franklin said, "They did a tremendous job guarding us on the perimeter. Bobbitt did a great job of mixing up our offense, getting our timing off, putting more pressure on me."

Yep, that wraps it up -- better job, tremendous job, great job. The Tennessee training staff deserves kudos for getting Parker ready to come back in, though, because she definitely was needed down the stretch. Parker air-balled a shot when she came back, prompting some doubts to flash through everyone's mind, including Summitt's.

But at some point, Parker threw whatever caution she was feeling to the wind and played down the stretch almost as if she weren't hurt. She finished with 26 points and five rebounds.

"I want to reiterate how proud I am of my team," Parker said. "They held it down, and obviously our shots weren't falling. But defensively, that's something we brought to this tournament … and that's the reason we won."

Well … one huge shot did fall -- Hornbuckle's long-, long-, long-range 3-pointer with 48.8 seconds left. That put Tennessee up 48-43 and really slammed the door on the Aggies' hopes of an upset.

Which means Parker gets to go for another NCAA title before she becomes the WNBA's No. 1 draft choice as everyone expects. Certainly, it went through Summitt's mind that she didn't want Parker to do anything Tuesday that would have jeopardized her pro future. But it was a matter of Parker's being able to play despite discomfort, which she did.

"I thought she showed a lot of effort playing with that shoulder of hers," Blair said. "Because I know she was in a lot of pain. But we were in a lot of pain trying to guard her, too."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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