TAMPA — All four teams arrived in town Thursday night to begin preparations for this weekend's Final Four, with defending national champion Tennessee the only one that has the benefit of playing in the St. Pete Times Forum this season.
"It was a great motivation to want to be back in a great city," Vols coach Pat Summitt said after arriving at the Marriott Tampa Westshore, which will serve as the team hotel this week. "When they asked us to come and play (in November), I thought 'Let's get a taste of it early and see if that's not incentive to come back.' I'm really proud of our team for getting our program back to the Final Four. It's not easy."
The Vols were greeted just before 10 p.m., walking through an arch of orange-and-white balloons to find an ornate sand sculpture with their logo, as well as pirates bearing orange beads.
Vols star forward Candace Parker, who dislocated her left shoulder twice Tuesday against Texas A&M, has been cleared to play. She showed no signs of the injury as she walked off the bus with her teammates, wearing an orange team jumpsuit.
"Candace has been working really hard with her rehab, and the shoulder has responded," Summitt said. "She's sore, but she's good to play, and I feel good about that. Fortunately, we have a little time to rest her as well."
Parker practiced before the flight to Tampa to try out a new shoulder brace.
"It felt really good on the floor getting some shots up, getting used to the brace," she said. "I was going to play, but you know it was a relief to get the okay from the doctors."
FIRST OF MANY? One Connecticut fan who will be attending her first Final Four on Sunday is Tiffany Hayes, a 6-foot guard from Winter Haven High who has signed to play for the Huskies next season.
Hayes is one of two Connecticut signees who will play in the WBCA All-America Game at the USF Sun Dome on Saturday afternoon. All players in that game get a free ticket to the Final Four games.
"For the Final Four to be right in Tampa, and then I get to be in Tampa, it's very exciting," said Hayes, who has traded text-messages with the current players since their victory Tuesday.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Each school has its host hotel and a designated fan headquarters restaurant in the Channelside area. Splitsville has been renamed "Summittville" for Tennessee, Stump's Supper Club is "Storrs Supper Club" for UConn, Howl at the Moon is "Growl at the Moon" for LSU, and Tinatapa's is "Tara's Tapas" for Stanford.
ONE VS. TWO: Both of Sunday's semifinals pit a No. 1 seed against a No. 2, but if recent history is any indication, things look good for underdogs LSU and Stanford.
The past five 1-vs.-2 meetings at the Final Four have been won by the No. 2 seeds. Maryland was a No. 2 when it beat top seeds North Carolina and Duke in 2006, and Baylor was a No. 2 in wins over LSU and Michigan State in 2005. UConn was a No. 2 in the 2004 title game when the Huskies beat top-seeded Tennessee.
SEEMS FAMILIAR: The last time Stanford played in Florida, it was against Connecticut, in the Elite Four Holiday Classic in Lake Buena Vista in December 1997. The Huskies won 94-78. The other three teams are regulars to the state. LSU played in Gainesville in February, beating the Gators 85-71, and Connecticut played at USF last season, winning 81-67. Tennessee played Oklahoma in a doubleheader at the St. Pete Times Forum in November, winning 70-67.
AROUND THE NATION: Arizona named Niya Butts coach, replacing Joan Bonvicini, who was fired last month. Butts was an associate coach at Kentucky and played on NCAA champion teams at Tennessee in 1997 and 1998. … Two former South Carolina players are facing additional theft charges. Authorities say they have linked Jasmine Payne, 18, and Ashlie Billingslea, 19, to two more thefts at a university gym. Arrest warrants accuse the women of taking money and credit and debit cards. Both have been kicked off the team.
Information from Times wires was used in this report. Greg Auman can be reached at (813) 226-3346, and at [email protected]