In July the West team’s Candace Parker, right, of the Los Angeles Sparks, receives the MVP trophy from WNBA President Laurel Richie after the WNBA All-Star basketball game in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee opens Southeastern Conference play Thursday by honoring one of the greatest players in the league's history.
Candace Parker, who led Tennessee to consecutive national titles in 2007 and 2008, will have her No. 3 jersey retired in a ceremony before the fifth-ranked Lady Vols (11-1) host No. 16 LSU (10-2). Parker, the reigning WNBA most valuable player and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, averaged 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game during her college career.
"Candace kind of led the way in understanding if you're 6-3, you're not always in the paint," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "You would get utilized where you're needed and (by) what you can do. Candace could play all positions."
Parker will join Warlick (No. 22), Chamique Holdsclaw (No. 23), Tamika Catchings (No. 24), Bridgette Gordon (No. 30) and Daedra Charles (No. 32) as former Tennessee players to have their jerseys retired. Former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt also has a banner raised in her honor.
Parker will see familiar faces on both benches Thursday.
Warlick and LSU coach Nikki Caldwell were assistants on Summitt's staff during Parker's career. Caldwell left Tennessee to take over UCLA's program after the Lady Vols' 2008 title and now is in her third year as LSU's coach. Warlick and Caldwell are good friends who have raised more than $150,000 through their Champions for a Cause Foundation, a long haul motorcycle ride for breast cancer awareness.
When their teams matched up against each other last season, Bashaara Graves scored the winning basket with eight-tenths of a second left to give Tennessee a dramatic 64-62 victory at LSU.
"It's a tough opener," Warlick said. "Nikki knows us. We know her. It's going to be a very competitive game. It's going to be fun. I'm excited that she gets to come and be a part of Candace getting her jersey retired as well."
Each team enters Thursday having split its last two games.
The Lady Vols followed up a 76-70 loss at No. 4 Stanford - ranked sixth at the time of the game - with a 110-42 rout of Lipscomb. In its last two games, LSU fell 89-79 at North Carolina State and won 72-45 over Jackson State. LSU missed 22 of its first 27 shots against Jackson State before pulling away.
"It was barely a win in our opinion," LSU guard Jeanne Kenney said after the game. "We can't play that way in SEC play. Jackson State did a great job of exposing our weaknesses. We need to get better quickly."
Tennessee expects to get LSU's best shot Thursday as the Lady Vols open defense of their SEC regular-season title. Tennessee forward Cierra Burdick said the familiarity between the two staffs makes this a compelling rivalry.
"I think fans love it," Burdick said. "I think we love it. We want the bragging rights. Holly wants those bragging rights, just as Nikki does. I think it's going to be fun. The level of physicality for this game is tremendous. I'm looking forward to just coming out here and having a really competitive game."
It's the type of game that makes Warlick wish the Lady Vols still had Parker in uniform.
"Let's put (the jersey) on her first," Warlick quipped. "We'll retire it afterward."