"Everything is great. I've been rehabbing with Jenny," Candace Parker
said, referring to Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine for the Lady Vols.
When asked if she was relieved to be cleared to play, Parker just smiled as the sweat beaded on her face following practice.
"I was going to play, but it was a relief to be able to play and get the OK from the doctors to play this weekend," Parker said.
Parker had to make some pre-practice adjustments to the shoulder brace and briefly chatted with Alberta Auguste, who also wears one on her left shoulder because of looseness in the joint.
"She gave me a few tips." Parker said. "She came up and looked under my shirt and said, ‘Oh, we've got the same brace.'
"It feels good. The brace takes a little getting used to, but it's fine. I think I'll be fine. I think the brace just serves as a reminder to me – reminds me that my shoulder's injured, and it won't let it get out of place."
Parker wears a long-sleeve shirt in practice so the brace was not visible. It was not apparent from her play either that she had dislocated the shoulder twice just two days ago in the regional final win over Texas A&M. She hit jumpers and layups in practice and got on the boards against the male players.
"It felt really good on the floor and just getting some shots up and just getting used to the brace," Parker said. "I think that's the big thing."
The team left Knoxville after practice for a charter flight to Tampa for the Final Four because the participants have media commitments with ESPN during the day and a banquet to attend Friday evening.
Tennessee and LSU meet Sunday in the second game at approximately 9:30 p.m. Stanford and Connecticut play in the first game at 7 p.m. The winners meet Tuesday for the 2008 national title.
Pat Summitt had given Parker permission to miss practice Thursday, but the All-American forward wanted to take the court.
"I think Candace will be good to go Sunday night," Summitt said. "She's a little sore and rightfully so with what she went through, but Jenny says she's a great rehabber. Obviously she's very strong, and she told me she's ready to practice today.
"I told her I didn't mind the rest, but she told me she wants to see what she can do, and I am very confident that she will be ready to play."
What Parker could do looked to be about the same as any other practice session – she participated in all drills and even stayed afterwards, along with Nicky Anosike and two assistant coaches, Nikki Caldwell and Dean Lockwood, to take extra perimeter shots and free throws.
"I feel blessed that it's not my right shoulder," Parker said. "That's the way I look at it. I'm just going to go out there and play as hard as I can with the brace and with the injured shoulder."
Parker tweaked her right shoulder in preseason in October and has dealt with soreness in that shoulder – she shoots right-handed, though she also shoots left-handed close to the basket – all season.
Her teammates had no doubt that she would play this week.
"We have great trainers," Angie Bjorklund said. "Jenny is going to take care of her. No one is worried about it. It's time for other people to definitely step up (and help Parker offensively). With Jenny on our team we knew she would be ready. We've got the best."
"Candace is a tough player, and Jenny Moshak is a great trainer so I have all the faith in the world that she'll do the rehab necessary and she'll be able to go and give us everything that she has on the court," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "I never doubted that she was going to play. It's her last Final Four so you've got to expect her to be on the court."
Hornbuckle called Parker on Wednesday, the team's day off, to check on her.
"She reassured that she would be fine, that she would be on the court, and we never doubted that," Hornbuckle said.
Drs. Greg Mathien and Matt Rappe, who are both orthopedists, evaluated Parker and determined that she had sustained a "a non-traumatic shoulder dislocation," according to Tennessee, which means the shoulder did not suffer bone or serious ligament damage. "She has very good range of motion and very good strength," Moshak said.
Parker wasn't the only one to log time with Moshak in the training room.
"A little bit of ice, some treatment," said Hornbuckle, who has played with knee pain all season. "I feel like it's the same thing night in and night out once you get to the postseason. It's going to be physical, everybody is gunning for you and we're gunning for everybody else so physical play is always prominent."
The Tennessee-Texas A&M game took that description to new terms. Despite the lockdown defense played by both teams no player shot a free throw for the first 30 minutes.
"I've never in my career seen that of any team," said Summitt, who is in her 34th year. "That was the most physical team we've played all year. That's saying a lot."
Parker's left shoulder came out after she got a steal at the top of the lane and then rotated her arm. Parker headed up court dribbling the ball with her right hand and trying to get the shoulder back in place at the same time. Hornbuckle and a Texas A&M player trailed her.
"I was like, ‘She's in pain.' I heard her scream before I saw the shoulder so that's why I was coming after the ball," Hornbuckle said. "And then when I saw the shoulder I was like, ‘I don't know what to do. Should I go steal the ball from her? Should I try to call a timeout?' Because the A&M defender was behind her as well.
"It was a new experience for me that I hope I never have to go through again. It was shocking."
Parker has loose shoulders that are prone to subluxation but Tuesday was the first time the shoulder dislocated to that extent.
"I've seen it," Hornbuckle said. "It'll pop back in after she does it sometimes but it was just dangling. That was a new experience."
Summitt looked stricken courtside after the injury and met Parker on the floor with Moshak to offer comfort.
"I was just like, ‘Not now. Not her. As hard as she's worked,' " Summitt said. "And I knew she was in pain because I saw it go out. My first thought is she's probably done for the night."
Parker reentered the game for Tennessee and finished with 26 points in the 53-45 win. Parker has been criticized by those unfamiliar with her for being a "finesse player." That game wiped out the critics.
"I could care less what people say," Summitt said. "I know who she is. She knows who she is. She's tough as nails. She'll do whatever she can to help us win. She's all about winning.
"It's her toughness, it's her focus, it's her desire to win another championship. I marvel at how mentally strong Candace is. She played with a lot of pain. Hopefully now she won't be in pain and she'll be ready to play and be able to play with a little more freedom."
Summitt saw fight in her team, too, for clamping down defensively after Parker went down and making sure Tennessee was still in position to win.
"This team fought through a lot of adversity when Candace had the problem with her shoulder," Summitt said. "Alexis stepped up. She can't make a layup; she hits a 40-footer. We just did not let up on the defensive end. I thought that was the key to that victory, just our toughness defensively."
Hornbuckle's shot was closer to 25 or 26 feet, but it might have seemed like 40 to Summitt, who was standing nearby.
"Some of my friends have made a lot of jokes and they like to say it was luck," Hornbuckle said. "My dad actually said he was a little nervous because I missed two layups. I said, ‘Thanks for the confidence.' He was joking with me. I just got lucky I guess."
Hornbuckle's mother said she saw a change in her daughter's demeanor in the last five minutes of the game.
"My dad was worried and my mom was confident," Hornbuckle said. "I definitely felt what she was talking about.
"Coach was reiterating that my next shot was going to fall. I came out of the timeout like, "I cannot worry about the two layups I missed. If I get another opportunity whether it's a pull-up, it just happened to be that shot, that I was going to have confidence shooting."
The Lady Vols need Bjorklund back on track from behind the arc, and the freshman continues to take plenty of shots in practice. She is excited about playing in her first Final Four.
"It's living the dream right here, and it's becoming a reality," Bjorklund said. "It's the last week. It's crazy. It flew by, but I'm excited."
Summitt is grateful for the time this week between Thursday and Sunday's game so that Parker can get some extra rest and rehab. Practice lasted an hour and a half Thursday. The team will have a light session Friday in Tampa to go over the scouting report.
"It's Thursday," Summitt said an hour before the team departed for the airport. "We don't play until late Sunday. Four days to get better. I think Candace will get in a zone like she always does and be ready to play."
Candace Parker practiced with her teammates Thursday and even stayed afterwards for a few minutes to take some extra shots. She showed no ill effects from twice dislocating her shoulder last Tuesday, and the medical staff has cleared Parker to play at the Final Four.