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Parker leads Lady Vols' strive for seven

It's become such a stock answer for Candace Parker, she might as well embroider it on her warm-up suit.

When asked about the nine-year championship drought that the Tennessee women's basketball team has suffered, the affable sophomore forward has the same answer ready:

"To not win a national championship at Tennessee is deemed a failure."

It was 1998 when the Lady Vols last won the national title, their sixth in 12 years. And the Rocky Top faithful have anointed Parker as the player to get them back to prominence.

Tennessee will get its shot at ending the dry spell tonight (8:30 p.m., ESPN) when it plays No. 4 Rutgers in Quicken Loans Arena.

"I think everybody wearing orange will say it's been way too long," Parker said. "It's been way too long since Tennessee has won a national championship. And I'm tired of going into Thompson-Boling Arena and playing on The Summitt [court] and not looking up and seeing a banner that has all our names written all over it."

Parker has become the poster girl not just for Tennessee but for all of women's basketball.

It's been that way since she was in high school in Naperville, Ill., where she became the only two-time USA Today National Player of the Year.

Even after sitting out her freshman year to repair damage in her left knee, Parker still was the talk of her sport last season with her dunks -- including the first two ever in a women's NCAA Tournament game.

She spent the summer as the only college member of the USA Women's Senior National Team, which helped her development as a player both on the court and off.

And this year, she's lived up to expectations. She won the State Farm Wade Trophy as the national player of the year and in this run to the national championship game, she is averaging 19.4 points and 10.8 rebounds.

But it was a poor showing in the SEC Tournament loss to LSU that really crystallized for Parker what her role on the team needed to be.

Yes, she has one of the most complete, versatile set of offensive skills in all of basketball. But on those days when her shots just won't fall, she needs to find some mode of meaningful contribution -- or else Tennessee will lose.

"After the SEC game in which Candace had only four points in the tournament, we had our meeting and [the players] just spoke their mind," coach Pat Summitt said. "They just said to Candace, if you pull this in postseason, we lose. We can't win. And the big thing that Nicky [Anosike] challenged her to do was to be a defensive player."

The team dedicated itself to unselfish play, defense and personal accountability back in January when they wrote and signed a team manifesto before they beat Connecticut.

The Lady Vols decided that embracing roles -- whether it be highlight reel material or simply setting solid screens -- was the key to getting Tennessee another national championship.

Still for Parker, the prescribed role as media superstar is a bit of an uncomfortable place.

"It bothers me. I'm not going to lie," Parker said. "When I feel like we've had a great team effort and all the highlights are of me on ESPN, I'm like dang! Our team however doesn't focus on that because they know that's not me and that's not what I'm about."

"When you have a player such as Candace Parker, who's so versatile and she's done so much for women's basketball as far as the dunking -- she's going to get that publicity," junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "It's how you handle it. She never puts Candace Parker in the spotlight. The media might, but she never does that."

Her teammates, though, sometimes do, particularly when they're out together in a public place, like the Knoxville mall.

"When you're 6-4, black and tall you don't fit the description of your typical person in Knoxville," Parker joked. "My teammates sometimes will be with me at the mall and shout, 'Look, it's Candace Parker' and run away."

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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