Parker equals career high as Lady Vols hold off upstart Irish

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Candace Parker sensed her team was in distress and rushed in for a Rocky Top rescue.

Parker matched her career best with 34 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, leading top-seeded Tennessee to the regional finals for the eighth straight year with a 74-64 win against Notre Dame on Sunday night in the Oklahoma City Regional.

The 6-foot-3 All-American put back Nicky Anosike's miss and then converted a three-point play off a transition jumper to send Tennessee into the lead with a 14-0 run early in the second half, and the Lady Vols never looked back on their way to the round of eight for the 23rd time.

"Honestly, in postseason, you've got to come through. That's what great players do," Parker said.

Shannon Bobbitt added a pair of 3-pointers as Tennessee built its lead to 60-44 before Notre Dame made a late rally. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who led the Irish to the 2001 national championship, fell to 0-16 against Tennessee.

The Lady Vols will face Texas A&M on Tuesday night in the regional final. Tennessee (33-2) is going for its 17th Final Four berth, while the Aggies are trying for their first.

Parker was on her game from the start, scoring Tennessee's first eight points while her teammates combined to miss their first eight shots. But she needed to spark her teammates into action to secure the victory, and that's what she did with the Lady Vols facing a surprising second-half deficit.

Parker rushed up in transition before pulling up for a jumper and getting fouled. Her free throw with 17:39 left put the Lady Vols up 38-37, and her teammates soon got in the game, too.

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said Parker was just doing her job as the team's best offensive player -- and doing it well.

"She has the size, she has the skills, she has the mind-set to take over a game," Summitt said. "As a coach, you don't always have that on your basketball team and when you do have it, you just hope that they have Candace's mentality.

"She wants it, and she's willing to step up and make the plays for us."

Bobbitt finished with 11 and Anosike had 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Lady Vols.

Notre Dame freshman Becca Bruszewski scored 16 to match the career-high she had in the first round against SMU and Charel Allen also had 16 for the Irish. Lindsay Schrader, Parker's teammate on a grade school AAU team, added 13 points and Ashley Barlow scored 11.

For a while, Notre Dame (25-9) was able to stay in front of the Lady Vols even with Parker on a tear.

Despite her 19 first-half points, Tennessee was down at halftime for only the third time this season -- although they'd come back to win previously against Mississippi State and Georgia.

It was no different this time.

Notre Dame led 37-33 after point guard Tulyah Gaines drove the lane for a layup in the opening minutes of the second half, but Parker got help from three of her teammates in the big run, and the Irish didn't have an answer. It was the second time in three NCAA tournament games that Tennessee had to overcome a sluggish start.

"I don't know what it is but we need to fix it," Parker said.

This one at least ended up a little closer than most of McGraw's encounters with the Lady Vols.

Tennessee won all 15 of the previous meetings by an average margin of 23 points, and only one of the games was decided by single digits. Behind seven 3-pointers from Angie Bjorklund, the Lady Vols shot 55 percent from 3-point range in scorching Notre Dame 87-63 on its home floor in January.

"We were trying to guard the 3-point line this time. We didn't really think that [Parker] would get that many because we did want to guard inside," McGraw said. "But we did a really good job the first half of guarding the 3-point line ... and that was the key to our game.

"Considering the last game we had with them, we've come a long way," McGraw added.

The Lady Vols were already up by double digits this time before Bjorklund connected on a 3 from the left wing to make it 55-42 with 11:12 remaining. Anosike then answered Schrader's layup, and Bobbitt hit a 3-pointer from the right wing to give Tennessee its biggest lead.

Bruszewski, pushed into more playing time by starter Erica Williamson's foul trouble, tried to lead her team back but the Irish failed in their bid to reach the regional finals for the first time since their national championship run seven years ago.

"We felt from tipoff that we could play with them," Allen said. "We believed in each other, we believed in ourselves and we just fought to the end."