No quarrel: These two among best
Barry Temkin

March 9, 2003

NORMAL, Ill. -- I guess Candace Parker really can do everything.

The 6-foot-3-inch Naperville Central superstar not only led her team to the Class AA state championship game Saturday at Illinois State, but she also may have helped quell a rebellion.

Had Central not hung on for a 56-54 victory over Regina Dominican in the semifinals, the girls title game would have been an all-private-school affair for the first time in Class AA history. That probably would have sparked demands for a four-, or maybe even 40-, class system, especially after private schools grabbed five of the spots in this Elite Eight.

Some coaches outside Chicago already were grumpy after Hope won the Class A title in the first year the Public League could enter its teams in the smaller-schools sweepstakes.

But when Parker sank a free throw with nine seconds left to give Central a 56-52 lead, she restored order on the court, giving almost everyone except opposing fans exactly what they wanted and expected.

That, of course, was the state's two best teams, undefeated Naperville Central and Fenwick, and its two best players, Parker and 6-2 Erin Lawless, facing off for the title.

"Everyone assumed the best," Lawless said after her team's 80-54 semifinal victory over Belleville Althoff. "As soon as they heard the Elite Eight they thought it would be Naperville Central and Fenwick."

The scoreboard would identify the better team, and on this night at least, it was Naperville Central, which defeated Fenwick 63-59 behind Parker's 32 points. Lawless had 22.

The debate about the best player will no doubt linger, even after the upcoming announcement of the voting results for Ms. Basketball of Illinois. Parker won it last year as a sophomore, in part because she produced the first dunk by a high school girl in Illinois and in part because she is the most gifted female player this state has produced.

This year, though, the award would best be split in half because choosing between Parker and Lawless is like picking steak over lobster or Kobe over Shaq.

The Purdue-bound Lawless averages 22 points and 10 rebounds a game on 54 percent shooting, dominating games inside or outside with twisting drives and turnaround jump shots. In January she scored a school-record 51 points against St. Ignatius.

"Her season has been just fantastic," said Fenwick coach Dave Power, who won the state title with Lawless two years. "She took a team that graduated three starters from 2001 and kept us right there.

"I'm not saying this is a career achievement award. She scored 51 in a game, and she doesn't take a lot of shots. She's high quality, not major quantity."

Fenwick lists Lawless as a guard, forward and center, as if to emphasize her ample versatility, but in reality she relinquishes guard duties to the talented likes of Kristin Heidloff and Breanne Smilie. Parker, listed simply as a forward, really does play every position, sometimes on the same possession.

If Lawless is dazzling in her efficiency, Parker, who played with Lawless on a club team last summer, makes jaw-dropping moments almost routine. During a 3 1/2-minute stretch straddling the third and fourth quarters against Regina, for example, she produced the following:

- Blocked a layup attempt from behind and grabbed the ball, leading to a Central basket:

- Grabbed a rebound and went end to end, scoring on a finger roll and adding a free throw after being fouled on the play:

- Went end-to-end again, this time escaping a triple-team near the free-throw line and going behind her back with the ball to dodge another defender and lay the ball in to give her team a 47-41 lead.

No wonder Naperville Central coach Andy Nussbaum said that Parker, who averages 24 points and 14 rebounds, can let her game speak for itself. Central junior guard Rachel Crissy, though, seemed to grasp the spirit of the occasion.

"It's kind of a honor that I out of all the players in Illinois, the country and the world get to play with the top player in the nation."

Hey, what about the universe?

"Her ball might float away," Crissy said.

For Fenwick and Naperville Central and their stars, expectations were ready to float away when this season started. And they didn't lessen when Naperville Central needed OT to defeat Fenwick 55-48 in December.

"We've dealt with a lot of pressure," said Heidloff, who could have been speaking for both teams.

Fenwick wanted its third Elite Eight in four years, having finished third in 2000. Central, which starts just one senior, wanted its first appearance after being upset on the road to Normal the last two years.

Fenwick seemed to have the edge in the finale Saturday. Besides more Elite Eight experience, it had the easier semifinal opponent and was more rested because it played the first semifinal game and has more depth than does Central.

But Central had Parker, which usually is enough. The question this weekend was whether there was anyone in the universe who could stop her.

"I believe there is," she said, "but hopefully no one can stop Naperville Central."

This season, no one could.


Copyright (c) 2003, The Chicago Tribune

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