Lady Vols Eager For Another Crack At Tar Heels

Saturday, March 31st 2007, 5:46 pm
By: News On 6

CLEVELAND (AP) _ Candace Parker's mind drifted back to last March, to the agonizing moments following Tennessee's exit from her first NCAA tournament.

Sitting in almost the exact spot Saturday as she did a year ago, the multitalented All-American recalled her pain.

``North Carolina was out there cutting down the nets,'' Parker said glumly, her eyes rolling back in the direction of the floor inside Quicken Loans Arena. ``We sat in here crying.

``We'd like to change things up.''

The Lady Vols will get the chance Sunday.

Tennessee, the program by which all others are measured in women's basketball, will meet North Carolina for the second time this season and third time in the past year at the Final Four.

In last year's Cleveland Regional final, North Carolina defeated Tennessee 75-63 to earn its second trip to the national semifinals. As luck would have it, the Lady Vols (32-3) and Tar Heels (34-3) have been on a collision course since the NCAA pairings were announced.

Now they'll lock up again _ with more riding on the outcome.

``I think it was meant to be,'' said coach Pat Summitt, who has Tennessee in its 17th Final Four. ``Same city. Same building. Same locker room, playing against Carolina.''

Before practice, Tennessee guard Alexis Hornbuckle looked around and found the familiar surroundings somewhat surreal.

``It's a little freaky,'' she said. ``I think they (the NCAA tournament committee) did it on purpose.''

Maybe. Maybe not.

However it happened, and whoever's responsible, the matchup of No. 1 seeds and perennial powerhouses will showcase two of the nation's biggest stars: Parker and North Carolina's Ivory Latta, the Tar Heels' tiny and terrifying point guard.

Parker is unlike any player in the women's game.

The 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore, listed as a forward-center-guard, can do it all and usually does. In a single possession, Parker can bring the ball up as a point guard, post up like a power forward for an easy basket or step outside and drain a jumper.

She's averaging 19.9 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.8 blocks and immeasurable attitude. And Parker, who sat on Tennessee's bench as a freshman following knee surgery, has elevated her game in this tournament. In last weekend's win over Mississippi in the Dayton Regional final, she had 24 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks while dominating the entire 94 feet.

Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell scratched her head when asked to pick Parker's best attribute.

``Wow,'' Hatchell said. ``I don't think there's one thing. She's so versatile. She can play anywhere on the court you need her to and whatever assignments you give her, she can do those well.''

In Tennessee's visit to North Carolina on Dec. 3, Parker, the only woman to dunk in a NCAA tournament game, stuffed the box score by scoring 27 points with 10 rebounds. Trouble was, she didn't get any help from her teammates as the Tar Heels handled the Lady Vols 70-57.

The loss served as a wake-up call on Rocky Top.

``We didn't play well at all,'' Parker said. ``We had beaten UCLA, Arizona State, Stanford and some other teams and were feeling pretty good about ourselves. But that turned it around real quick.''

Summitt's practices got tougher in the weeks following Tennessee's second straight loss to Carolina. The Hall of Famer stressed rebounding, defense and warned her other players about the dangers of standing around and watching Parker with the ball.

As always, the Lady Vols responded. They lost only two more games _ to then-No. 1 Duke and No. 11 LSU _ on the way to another perfect SEC regular season, another top seed and another march through March.

Through it all, Parker and her teammates drew inspiration from being denied a Final Four trip by the Tar Heels.

``That was the one that stuck with me through the summer,'' said forward Nicky Anosike. ``It's been in my head for a long time. Now we have a chance to redeem ourselves.''

For the Tar Heels, redemption would be getting to the championship after coming so close in 2006.

Their visit to Boston last April ended with a semifinal loss to Maryland, the eventual champion. Latta limped through most of that game on a twisted knee that forced her off the floor and later required surgery.

``It was so frustrating,'' the senior said. ``I was playing in terrible pain. But I'll tell you what, if anything like that ever happens again, I'm not coming off. I'm going to do whatever I have to to win.''