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Vols' Hornbuckle recalls coach's words at right time

Alexis Hornbuckle, left, celebrates with Angie Bjorklund after Hornbuckle’s shot won it for Tennessee.

BRIAN CASSELLA | Times

Alexis Hornbuckle, left, celebrates with Angie Bjorklund after Hornbuckle’s shot won it for Tennessee.

TAMPA — Somewhere in the back of her mind Sunday night, Tennessee guard Alexis Hornbuckle could hear the conversation.

After the Volunteers won their seventh national title last season, coach Pat Summitt told Hornbuckle that she needed to play better offensively for the Vols to win title No. 8.

So there she stood Sunday night after shooting an air ball, then committing a foul to put LSU guard Erica White on the free-throw line with seven seconds remaining. When White hit both, Hornbuckle remembered the talk.

"That definitely crossed my mind, that we won No. 7 without me offensively and we can't win No. 8," the 5-foot-11 senior said. "As time was running down, especially after Erica made those free throws. I just felt like she (Summitt) wasn't lying."

And Summitt wasn't incorrect. The Vols have needed Hornbuckle. Although she is just 6-of-18 from the field the past two games (2-of-5 from 3-point range), she has had two of the Vols' biggest shots in the tournament. Against Texas A&M last week, she hit a crucial 3-pointer and two free throws in the closing minutes to help seal the win. Then Sunday night, she grabbed a rebound and scored with one second remaining to give the Vols a 47-46 victory over LSU.

It may not be the offensive firepower Summitt talked about, but it's the tenacity and ability to fight through adversity that Hornbuckle's teammates have come to expect.

"That's Alexis," teammate Candace Parker said. "She's going to battle until the end. She went out and battled as hard as she could, and I was just so happy for her."

A three-time West Virginia player of the year, Hornbuckle admits offense isn't her strong suit. Where she came from, defense is the name of the game.

"I couldn't shoot to save my life when I was younger," said Hornbuckle, who started playing at 4, and learned the game with her older brother and her father, a former college player. "I couldn't make layups. My jump shot was terrible; I don't think I even had a jump shot in high school. So I prided myself on trying to get the hustle plays, diving after balls.

"You think I'm going after balls on the hardwood? I was doing the same thing on concrete, so hardwood is like jumping on a cushion to me. I love playing defense and being a defensive spark."

This season, she has been both. She is the team's second-leading scorer (10.1), but also averages 5.7 rebounds and has a team-leading 103 steals. Despite her struggles the past two games, Hornbuckle is averaging nearly 11 points in the NCAA Tournament.

"We never had any doubts about her," senior guard Shannon Bobbitt said. "Her shots weren't falling, but that didn't mean we weren't going to run plays through her and get her shots. Great players go through things like that, go through slumps and miss shots, but you have to keep going to them."

Meanwhile, Hornbuckle can still hear the conversation loud and clear.

"To let my team down offensively, I can promise you that it won't happen again," Hornbuckle said. "I'm going to be more focused. We were blessed to make it out and now I'm focused on (tonight)."

Vols' Hornbuckle recalls coach's words at right time 04/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 9:58pm]
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