have a JEWEL!!! in Parker!!! Wow!!!''
You'll have to excuse the exclamation points from Tennessee Lady Vols fans. They had waited a year to watch Candace Parker play, after all. And judging from her first two games -- and her popularity on a Tennessee message board, ''The SUmmiTT'' at scout.com -- she was worth waiting for.
''Where on campus will 'Candace Parker Drive' be?''
Playing both forward positions and the wing in coach Pat Summitt's offense, Parker did a little bit of everything for the Lady Vols in their first two games, exhibitions played on their home court.
In her debut against Dalhousie University of Halifax, Nova Scotia, which the Lady Vols won 131-40 (yes, women's basketball powers schedule patsies, too), Parker had 20 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and three steals in 19 minutes.
In her second game, a 101-55 victory over Carson-Newman College, Parker scored 19 points and added six rebounds, two assists and two steals in 19 minutes. Her field-goal percentage stands at 84 percent (16-for-19). Oh, and Parker, a 6-3 redshirt freshman, also jumped center.
''Insane!! The girl's a machine!!!''
For Parker, the pregame introduction before her first game was extra special. A home crowd of more than 10,000 at Thompson-Boling Arena cheered wildly when her name was announced.
''It was amazing,'' Parker said after a recent practice. ''I couldn't wait to put on a Tennessee jersey and actually play. I couldn't imagine it. And then at the time, it was just ... I couldn't even describe how I felt.''
Her mom, who was at the game, took a stab at it.
''I could see her face, and I could tell she was so excited she could hardly stand it,'' Sara Parker said.
During her four years at Naperville Central, Parker won just about every award imaginable, including being named national player of the year by USA Today in 2003 and 2004. But two offseason surgeries (in August and September 2004) to repair cartilage in her left knee kept her off the court during her freshman year at Tennessee.
''I came in thinking I was going to play, and having to be sidelined with the injury was tough,'' Parker said. ''But I'm just happy this year is here.''
She spent her freshman year adjusting to life on the Knoxville campus, studying -- she's leaning toward a degree in marketing or finance -- and rehabbing.
''I definitely like being down here,'' she said. ''I wasn't sure how I was going to adjust to the South coming from the Chicago area, but I love it. The Southern hospitality -- I really love it down here.''
''I was impressed with her jump shot in general. That surprised me -- it was such a fluid motion and just went in.''
Parker became the first Illinois girl to dunk in a game as a 15-year-old sophomore, and Lady Vols fans can't wait to see her dunk in a college game. Everyone knows it's only a matter of when. Summitt has given her the green light to dunk.
But after watching Parker take part in a dunking contest with the Tennessee men's team during Halloween weekend, Summitt told the Knoxville News Sentinel: ''My hands were sweating. I told [Candace], 'Don't do that. Coach can't take it. My heart can't take it.'''
During an intrasquad scrimmage that same night, Parker -- who is wearing No. 3 for the Lady Vols as a tribute to her favorite player, Allen Iverson -- treated the crowd of 3,300 to a dunk on a baseline move. The fans went crazy.
''The excitement around women's college basketball in Tennessee is amazing,'' Parker said.
The Lady Vols, ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/ESPN poll and No. 2 by the Associated Press, have not won a national championship since 1998. Their season officially opens Sunday at home against Stetson, followed by a home game Monday against Chattanooga.
After that, the team heads to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, for the Paradise Jam tournament, where it will play Michigan State, Gonzaga and Maryland in consecutive days beginning Thursday. National TV viewers will get a look at Parker when Tennessee hosts Texas on Dec. 1.
Although the Lady Vols are stacked with talent, most eyes will be on Parker.
''Her ability to play on the wings allows us to go with a bigger lineup,'' Summitt said during a teleconference Wednesday. ''The thing that has been really encouraging is how well she's rebounded from that position, and her shot selection. She's let the offense come to her. She has not forced the action. She has been in a good rhythm.
"We've allowed Candace and other perimeter players besides our point guards to bring the ball up in transition. She's got great reads and is a solid passer. It allows her to get more involved.''
As a laughing face scrolls across the message window: ''Who is that Parker girl they talk about??? Must be a sleeper since I have never heard of her!''
Despite the mercy wins over Dalhousie and Carson-Newman, Summitt saw ''glaring breakdowns'' on the defensive end.
''The big question,'' Summit said, ''is where is our defense, and can our post game put up consistent numbers for us?''
Parker, who said her defense is ''coming along,'' described Summitt as intense.
''She expects a lot out of her players,'' Parker said. ''She doesn't like to repeat things. When you receive a compliment, it's a big deal.''
Consider it a big deal, then, that Summitt mentioned Parker ''has had a great offseason,'' adding, ''While the injury is not something any of us were excited about a year ago, I think she's stronger both mentally and physically because of it.''
Parker missed 11 games during her senior year at Naperville Central after having surgery to repair a torn left ACL in July 2003. She came back to play that season, leading her team to its second straight Class AA state title, and played for USA Basketball during the summer of 2004.
But when her knee swelled that summer, necessitating two more surgeries, her college career had to be put on hold.
''As a mom, when your kids hurt, you hurt,'' Sara Parker said. ''I knew how badly she wanted to be out there, but she couldn't. But she didn't belabor it. She's not one to wallow in her misery.''
Although Parker considered returning to the court in January, her knee needed more healing time.
''Last year was disappointing,'' she said. ''It was tough.''
But it's behind her now. She is healthy again and is about to make her official debut with the Lady Vols. Finally. Or, as one message-board poster put it, "FINALLY!!!!!!''