KNOXVILLE — Kara Lawson wasn’t the only USA National Team player with that homecoming feeling on Sunday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The former Lady Vol, who graduated in 2003 and is now a member of the WNBA Sacramento Monarchs, was joined by LSU grad Seimone Augustus and former Connecticut players Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Swin Cash, all of whom drew plenty of attention from Tennessee fans in years past for their successful efforts against UT.
“We actually miss the orange seats,” Taurasi said of the new black decor in the arena. “It’s like an NBA arena out there. I don’t see why Knoxville wouldn’t be the next franchise for the WNBA.”
A WNBA atmosphere was certainly present in the USA team’s 83-72 victory over the defending NCAA champion Lady Vols.
Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie, who defined the league in its start-up years, combined with Taurasi, a member of the WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury, for the difference in the outcome.
Taurasi led all scoring in the contest with 28 points and had nine rebounds on the defensive end. Leslie dominated the paint in her 29 minutes of play, scoring 18 points and pulling down 12 boards.
Augustus added 12 points, and Bird had 11.
In contrast, only two Tennessee players reached double figures. Candace Parker scored 22, most of them in the second half, and freshman forward Angie Bjorklund had a hot hand shooting from the perimeter for 13 points. Guards Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt combined for 12 assists.
Despite the disparity in double-figure scoring, the No. 1-ranked Lady Vols cut a 12-point deficit to only three points, 73-70, with four minutes left before a 10-2 USA team run put the game away.
“We obviously competed and I told our basketball team that we didn’t invite them (USA National team) here just to compete; we wanted to beat them,” Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt said.
“I thought we had a great run late in second half. That started with our defense. Our board play has got to pick up, especially our defensive board play. We talked about it last year and here we are talking about it again.”
Summitt was pleased with the composure of her four freshmen, especially Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone, both of whom didn’t hesitate to fire away from the perimeter.
“This team has got a chance to be a special team, but they’re going to have to have better ball security and be the best rebounding team in the country,” Summitt added.
Parker, who played on the USA National Team this past summer, was held to only four points in the first half but rallied to nearly equal Taurasi’s offensive output.
“I’m proud of having battled,” Parker said of her team. “You’re battling against some of the best in the world. However, we have to go back to the drawing board because there were possessions we took off or we messed up running plays.
“I don’t think it was a moral victory when we lose. We lost.”
On the other side of the floor, Lawson didn’t score a single point, took only one shot and played just 19 minutes in the newly-renovated facility she once called home, but her contributions to the USA National team have been obvious.
She scored in double figures in each of the team’s first two exhibition games against Connecticut and Maryland, and she is a vocal leader when she’s on the floor.
“We’re excited to play here. It’s been a good college tour so far,” Lawson said. “Tennessee played very well and forced us to execute in the second half to get the win.
“Tennessee compared pretty favorably (with the other two college teams). Having Candace, that’s something the other schools we’ve played don’t have.”
Coincidentally, Lawson was on the winning side last time the USA National Team faced UT. In 1999, she scored the winning shot to put the only blemish on the USA team’s touring record.
The USA National team will continue its college tour under the guidance of coach Anne Donovan at Baylor.
The Lady Vols will host Carson-Newman in the second and final exhibition game of the preseason on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. UT opens the regular season at home against UT Chattanooga on Nov. 11.