Parker dunks a reminder of how game is changing

Sidney Spencer's reaction said it all.

Trailing a break at midcourt early in the first half of Tennessee's opener against Army, Spencer suddenly stopped, mouth open in amazement and exaltation, and spun a full 360 degrees in excitement. The source of her exuberance?

Candace Parker.

The only way for Parker to one-up Courtney Paris after the Oklahoma freshman's standout performance against Pepperdine in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was to literally go up.

So after taking teammate Spencer's outlet pass and racing the length of the court with Army's Margaree King on her shoulder, Parker finished the break with a rim-shaking, one-handed flush with 13:48 left in the half. Not only was it the first dunk of Parker's college career, it was the first dunk by a woman in the NCAA Tournament.

And just for good measure, Parker dunked again in the second half, taking a pass from Nicky Anosike and driving the baseline before finishing strong in traffic.

The list of women who had dunked during a college game prior to Parker is short: Georgeann Wells, Charlotte Smith and Michelle Snow. That's it. (Lisa Leslie earned headlines by becoming the first player to dunk in a WNBA game.) It's also a list that was more novelty than noteworthy before Parker took to the air against Army.

The dunk in women's basketball has long been a spectacle that means more to people who don't follow the game than those who do. The women's game isn't played above the rim, and the few instances of a player dunking were at best aberrations, and at worst, contrived sideshows.

But Parker's dunks were different. The first one came in the flow of the action, with a defender in close proximity, and with the outcome of an NCAA Tournament game still very much in doubt. In fact, after Parker's first dunk, the Lady Vols responded with a 24-2 run.

Parker's dunks are important not because she got her hand above the rim and scored two points by pushing the ball through the hoop, but because it highlights the player at the forefront of an athletic revolution in women's basketball. Just as the physical training and conditioning that once made Tiger Woods stand alone in the world of pro golf are now par for the course, Parker's unique brand of athleticism is a sign of things to come in women's basketball.

Parker can rise above the rim to dunk in a game, but at 6 feet, 3 inches, she can also run the Lady Vols from the point or guard the opposing center on defense. And those last two displays of athleticism are at least as impressive, if not as highlight-worthy, as her vertical skills.

Whether it's Snow, Leslie or even Parker in a high-school dunk contest, we've seen women dunk a basketball. But what wowed the crowd in Norfolk, Va., and even her own teammates, was Parker showing all of us something we haven't ever seen before.

Whether the evolution of the game manifests itself in players dunking with regularity, or simply more lightning-quick post players and guards bigger than the centers of years gone by, we've reached one of those points in time when eras shift.

Parker didn't do all of this on her own, and Sunday's dunks were just two plays among 40 minutes. But the image of Parker rising up symbolizes something even bigger.

The next generation has arrived.

Need proof? Just ask Spencer.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.