Thursday, November 09, 2006

UT globe-trotter has world of talent

Playing for U.S. team helps Parker take game to next level

KNOXVILLE — Candace Parker hasn't had much time to slow down recently.

She's been too busy seeing the world.

Coming off an impressive redshirt freshman season with the Tennessee women's basketball team, Parker didn't get to relax as much as she would have liked.

She went through offseason conditioning with her Lady Vols teammates during the summer. Then, just as she was supposed to be starting school, she packed her bags and flew to Brazil.

"I think the last time I was (home) was in May," Parker said. "It was a busy, busy summer."

But it was all worth it.

Starting in late August, Tennessee's sophomore forward spent almost a month adjusting to a different level of competition as a member of the U.S. women's national team in the FIBA World Championships in Brazil.

Parker says it was an opportunity she couldn't pass up. She grew up watching players such as Sheryl Swoopes and former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings. And for more than three weeks, she got to be their teammate.

"I learned a lot," Parker said. "It grew my game, and it prepared me for what's to come. It gave me a glimpse into the past, but it also helped me in the present at the college level."

Parker did her part to help the U.S. team. Despite being the only non-WNBA player on the roster, she was the third-leading scorer, averaging 12.7 points per game. She led the team in scoring and rebounding in three of nine games, and in blocks seven times.

She came back with a bronze medal, a wealth of invaluable experience and perhaps a better understanding of her skills heading into her second season with the Lady Vols.

"Candace has improved significantly from the end of last season to now," UT Coach Pat Summitt said. "I would say that the U.S. basketball experience was a tremendous one for her. …

"She's definitely initiating more physical contact in the paint instead of being finesse. She's imposing her will in the paint, and we need that."

Upon returning from overseas, all Parker needed was some rest. Summitt allowed her to take off almost a month in preparation for preseason practice.

"I think I was at a point where I needed a break," Parker said. "I think everybody does. You can't go right from one season into the next without some sort of break."

Now, she says, she's fully rested and ready to make up for lost time — and a missed opportunity.

A tumultuous season for UT last year was headlined by the midseason departure of point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, who later transferred to Maryland. Alexis Hornbuckle broke her wrist in February, leaving the Lady Vols to play without a point guard down the stretch.

Parker did her best to make up for the lack of a true ball-handler, sharing the point-guard duties with senior guard Shanna Zolman as the Lady Vols won the SEC Tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight.

"We rallied around each other and ended up playing pretty well down the stretch," Parker said. "We came up short, but I think there's a lot to learn from last season."

For instance, the Lady Vols now have a go-to player in the clutch. Summitt says Parker stepped into that role when she knocked down the game-winning shot with 17 seconds left in the SEC championship game against LSU.

This season, there's another role Parker has fully embraced. With everything she learned with the U.S. team, she says she's prepared to lead a Lady Vols team with a few fresh faces but plenty of experience.

"Last year I was a freshman, so I don't think I really was the vocal leader and didn't necessarily have to bring the team into the huddle and things like that," Parker said. "But this year, it's kind of cool because this team is a little bit older."

And, like Parker, a little more-traveled.

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