Parker needs Zolman's help for Tennessee to win
The clock is ticking for Shanna Zolman at Tennessee, but Thursday's comeback win at Georgia proved the ball is still in the senior's hands for a final shot.
Close your eyes and imagine a basketball arcing through the air, the grooves rotating in such perfect symmetry that they become imperceptible. The background, whether it's a raucous stadium full of thousands of fans or a driveway at dusk, recedes from view. All that remains is the ball, paused some distance between an outstretched arm and the unmoving twine of the net on the other.
Make or miss? Hold the court or head home? Win a title or hang up your jersey for good?
The magic of a jump shot, especially one from so far outside the 3-point line that it causes the crowd to gasp, is that it's one of the few things in life that stops time. Whether it's minutes ticking by on the dashboard while you sit in rush-hour traffic, hours sliding away with family at holidays, or even years ushering us from one stage of life to another, time is usually out of our control. But when the ball slides off a shooter's fingers, time waits on them. The buzzer can blare and the red light behind the basket can light up the court, but nothing is over until the shooter has had her say.
It's only a momentary victory over the inevitable, a fleeting brush with control over the uncontrollable unless the ball goes in, allowing you to turn back time for another 40 minutes.
The Lady Vols are not Zolman's team, even though the senior sharpshooter from Indiana has led them in scoring for much of the season. This has probably been Candace Parker's team since she first set foot on campus, even as she sat in street clothes on the bench last season. But there is no longer any room for debate: It's Parker's show in Knoxville now, and everyone from Pat Summitt to the popcorn vendor knows it.
But Parker can't win a title alone, as the team demonstrated in a trip to Duke that produced one of the most embarrassing losses in Summitt's tenure and in subsequent losses to Kentucky and LSU. With point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood having transferred to Maryland and combo guard Alexis Hornbuckle out for the season after breaking her wrist against Vanderbilt last week, the pressure to provide that support rests even more squarely on Zolman's shoulders.
She wasn't able to come through during Tennessee's fall from grace, or at least the top of the rankings, but the ball is now quite literally in her hands.
Speaking to the media after the Duke game, Summitt said of Zolman, "Shanna was a nonfactor. The disappointing thing was when she wasn't scoring, she wasn't doing other things. She has to be more involved and do other things."
Now Zolman has no choice. Without Wiley-Gatewood and Hornbuckle, Zolman was forced to bring the ball up the court and initiate Tennessee's offense for much of the game against Georgia. Not a natural point guard, she suffered several small humiliations at the ridiculously quick hands of Sherill Baker and finished with five turnovers and just one assist. But she endured, and the Lady Vols survived long enough to, depending on your point of view, either force or benefit from Georgia's offensive collapse.
The star, of course, was Parker. Despite spraining her ankle in the first half, she scored the deciding bucket and led the team in points, rebounds and assists, outplaying Tasha Humphrey in a showdown between two of the nation's top talents. But Parker's brilliance has become something of a given. Her turnovers in the Duke debacle were costly, but she still finished with 17 points, five rebounds, five assists and arguably Tennessee's only positive performance. She needs to do that for Tennessee to beat Alabama or Mississippi State; to beat a team like Georgia, she needs help.
Against Georgia, it was Zolman's 18 points in 39 minutes, including 4-of-9 shooting from behind the arc, that provided the help. Nobody in college basketball has a shot as pure as Zolman's. The form, release and rotation all look like they come from an instructional video, but in recent games against Connecticut, Duke and LSU, all that aesthetic brilliance resulted in just 3-of-28 shooting. When her team needed her most, Zolman couldn't get it done.
Despite Zolman's performance and the Lady Vols' dominating the Bulldogs on the glass, Thursday's win wasn't so much a blueprint for success as a statement of survival. The odds remain long against Tennessee making the run to the Final Four in Boston that many expected before the season. Few teams pressure the ball like Georgia, but it's impossible to ignore that Tennessee turned the ball over 19 times while forcing just seven turnovers on Thursday.
But even aside from Zolman and the backcourt, the Lady Vols need Nicky Anosike to step up as a legitimate offensive threat (she finished with just five points and one rebound against Georgia). They need Sidney Spencer to take more than six shots in 33 minutes. They need Lindsey Moss and Sybil Dosty to handle double-digit minutes off the bench. They need a lot of best-case scenarios.
And they don't have much time.
Just like Liz Shimek at Michigan State, Kim Smith at Utah and Aja Parham at Boston College, nobody feels those disappearing seconds more intensely than a senior like Zolman. Parker is the star at the center of the spotlight, but the story for Tennessee down the stretch will be the degree to which Zolman makes the most of her final games.
Then again, Zolman is a born shooter. She knows that somewhere between the wrist and fingertips of her right hand rests the power to make time wait for her.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.