Commentary

Second straight title is perfect end to Parker's college career

Updated: April 9, 2008, 9:29 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Tennessee's Candace Parker sat down at her locker in a cramped but happy Tennessee dressing room Tuesday night and winced when the ice was headed her way.

On the knees and on the shoulder, trainer Jenny Moshak ordered.

Parker pleaded, "Please, not now. Or … could it be just on the knees?"

Moshak shook her head, grinning, "Nope, on both. Shoulder, too. This is why you love me."

So the bag of ice was taped to Parker's left shoulder, the one that had dislocated twice in the Elite Eight just a week previously when Tennessee beat Texas A&M. Parker had come back and played in that game. She played in Tampa, Fla. She was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player again.

And she's part of another championship team. In a 64-48 victory over Stanford, Parker had 17 points, nine rebounds and four steals. Oh, and there was that effortless-looking behind-the-back dribble after one of her steals. Not a show-off play at all, but rather the exact right move to keep possession while pushing the ball back down the court. Not a move a whole lot of players could make, let alone as gracefully as Parker did it.

Now, her next move is to the pro ranks. And you can expect she will make that look just as easy -- even if it's anything but. Tuesday was the perfect farewell for her college career.

"It's been a great feeling," Parker said. "To have all my family here watching me play for the first time, all of them here, for my last game. Just walking off the court, looking down at Tennessee on my chest -- you know, it's very emotional. But my years here at Tennessee have been great, and all good things must come to an end eventually."

Three years ago, Parker sat in another locker room in Indianapolis after seeing her team lose a 16-point lead in the national semifinals to Michigan State. She had to watch then. She was the superstar recruit, the freshman everyone couldn't wait to see … but we had to wait. A knee injury put her college debut on hold for a year.

[+] EnlargeCandace Parker
David Butler II/US PresswireCandace Parker had 17 points on 5-for-10 shooting, as well as nine rebounds and four steals Tuesday en route to Final Four most outstanding player honors for the second straight year.

Parker has played three college seasons and won NCAA titles in two of them. In her first postseason, 2006, Tennessee fell in the regional final. Basically, ultimate success is what Parker had gotten used to expecting from herself.

And even with an aching shoulder, she was not going to slow down. Or even consider it.

"My shoulder is … you know, it's sore," she acknowledged. "I always said I was just going to get to [the championship game] and deal with it after that. But obviously it's really sore, and I'm going to have to get it looked at after this and go from there. But I mean, a national championship -- it heals it up."

Parker's situation is a lot like that of Connecticut's Diana Taurasi four years ago. In 2004, Taurasi celebrated a national championship, was the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, started her professional career and then played in the Olympics. There was barely time for her to take a breath.

It will be the same thing for Parker. Although since the draft is now the day after the championship game, Parker has mere hours to revel in the championship before holding up her new WNBA jersey for the cameras. Even so, she is determined to not let this moment be fleeting.

"One day at a time, that's how I operate," she said. "Obviously, I'm going to enjoy this championship. I'm not going to rush through this because it's something you may not experience ever again in life. I'm just really excited to be here and to have won, and have to deal with the crazy schedule."

Sometimes, Tennessee players can make everything seem so businesslike that you can slip into thinking perhaps they don't have as much emotion wrapped up in this as some other teams. But that's not it. It's just that they seem able to process those emotions differently. The program is run like a business, in a good way. Tennessee has the best of everything it needs to contend annually -- from its facilities to its administration to its coaching to its support staff.

[+] 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.

The attitude is, "We are here to win it all. Expect to do it."

Parker said, "We always joke about Ricky Bobby and 'Talladega Nights' -- that if you ain't first, you're last.

"We're like, 'We don't want to come out here and have a national championship slip out of our hands.' We watched the Memphis-Kansas [men's NCAA title] game, and we realized it's not over until it says zero-zero-zero."

Well … in a lot of ways, this women's championship game was over before the clock ran out. Tennessee controlled the tempo, seemed a step quicker all evening, put the clamps on Stanford's offense. And Tennessee had Parker.

She has a season of eligibility left … but she has been at Tennessee for four years. She will graduate this spring. She's ready for the next step, even if it's hard to say good-bye.

"I've cried with Candace before. On senior night, I could hardly look at her," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "The one thing that keeps going through my mind is how special it has been, and how much I appreciate the fact that she chose Tennessee."

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.