April 04, 2004

Tennessee 52 - LSU 50 ------- UConn 67 - Minnesota 58 ------- Tennessee - UConn for the National Championship Tuesday

Strong get stronger in women's college hoops

NEW ORLEANS -- Candace Parker, the girl who outdunks the boys, watched this Final Four three levels up from the court.

Next year, she figures to have a better view -- smack in the middle of the action.

"I definitely can visualize myself in that position," the best female high school player in the country said after she calmed down from some feverish cheering following Tennessee's 52-50 win Sunday night against LSU.

"This game was very motivational. My heart rate was up, the hairs were standing up on my arm, it was so exciting."

It also seemed unfair.

Here was Tennessee playing in its 15th Final Four, all under Hall of Fame head coach Pat Summitt, and watching from the stands were incredible recruits who could have stepped on the court without the Lady Vols missing a beat.

More than that, they would have made Tennessee's path to the championship game against Connecticut a lot easier.

Wait 'til next year, indeed.

Parker outdunks boys. Alexis Hornbuckle, the Women's Basketball Association Player of the Year, may be the best high school guard in the country. Three others, Nkolika Anosike, Sade Wiley-Gatewood and Alex Fuller, played with them in the Women's Basketball Coaches All-America game on Saturday night. They all sat together in the nosebleed section of the New Orleans Arena on Sunday night, cheering madly and imagining themselves on a Final Four court next year.

"I don't take anything for granted but that's where I want to be," Parker said, displaying Tennessee's colors with a feathery orange and white boa draped around her neck. "I wanted to be with the best. We have the best recruiting class coming in and it will help every day in practice."

If Connecticut comes across as the New York Yankees of women's college hoops, each year getting big names in pursuit of titles, Tennessee is just as tenacious in going after talent. There are two reason why they are in position to win an unprecedented seventh championship: Summitt and the players she recruits.

The lean, 6-foot-3 Parker's specialty and attention grabber is her dunks -- she won the McDonald's All-American slam dunk contest last week against five boys -- but she has the whole package.

"I can hit threes," she said without a trace of shyness.

Her rebounding, shooting, passing, dribbling, and the defense that Summitt will drill into her, may very well carry Tennessee back to the Final Four next year.

"Candace is a player who, unlike what we have seen in the past, can not only dunk the basketball, but in a variety of ways play above the rim," Summitt said.

Summitt is losing three starters from this year's team -- seniors Tasha Butts, Ashley Robinson, and LaToya Davis, who scored the winning shot against LSU with 1.6 seconds left -- but the Fab Five coming in should make the Lady Vols even stronger next year.

Parker learned her ballhandling skills when she played point guard from ages 7-10. She was the tallest ballhandler in her league, but her family insisted she play point guard because they worried she might stop growing and take after her 5-foot-5 grandmother.

"But I kept growing and growing," she said. At 17, she might still be growing.

Though she has been in the limelight for a long time, being compared favorably to Cheryl Miller and Chamique Holdsclaw, Parker was surprised by the attention she got after winning the slam dunk contest last week.

"I just hope that doesn't overshadow other things in my game, like my ballhandling and my ability to hit shots," she said. "Eventually I think that will get noticed."

Her coach at Naperville Central High School in suburban Chicago, Andy Nussbaum, is confident everyone will notice quickly how talented Parker is.

"Candace has the chance to be the greatest female player on the planet. I really believe that," Nussbaum said.

"Four years from now we may be saying that she's the greatest to play at Tennessee -- and that's really something."

Summitt sees a player who could revolutionize women's basketball -- aside from being among only a handful who have dunked in a game -- and bring more attention to the sport.

"Candace is the most versatile 6-3 player (at this stage) that I've ever seen," Summitt said. "She has the ability to play every position on the floor, from point guard to post."

Two days after winning the slam dunk contest, Parker hit the rim on a dunk attempt in her West team's 91-66 loss to the East in the McDonald's All-American girls game.

"I just didn't get my footing right," Parker said.

Hornbuckle, 5-11 from South Charleston, W.Va., scored a record 22 points to lead the East and disrupted her future teammate's dunk try.

"If my team is playing and I'm on the court, I don't want to be the one who's dunked on," Hornbuckle said.

After her miss, Parker turned and looked for Hornbuckle.

"I was just, 'Gosh, why did you have to break it up?"' Parker said.

Next year, those moments will happen only in scrimmages.

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