"Our freshman class is about to start a whole new era," Alexis Hornbuckle said.
The new era began Saturday when Tennessee beat Connecticut, 68-67, in Hartford. The Lady Vols were down nine at halftime and trailed by as much as 12. Tennessee never led until the 2:38 mark of the second half when Hornbuckle hit a layup to put UT up by one, 62-61. The final outcome would not have been possible without the contributions of Hornbuckle, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and fellow freshman Nicky Anosike.
Hornbuckle's remark was said matter-of-factly and not with hubris. She simply meant the losses against UConn – Tennessee had dropped six straight – were going to end. And she was right.
Loree Moore, whose mother traveled from California to Hartford to see her daughter play since Moore couldn't go home for Christmas post-surgery (tonsillectomy), gave the team a belated gift by getting back in time for the UConn game. Wiley-Gatewood and Hornbuckle said Monday that they wanted to give a gift to the senior class – a win against their arch-nemesis.
"We wanted to do it for the seniors," Hornbuckle said Saturday on the post-game show to Mickey Dearstone on the Lady Vol Radio Network. "We didn't panic. We got into a tight huddle and said, ‘This is our game.' "
Hornbuckle played 27 minutes and scored 14 points and pulled down six rebounds. Wiley-Gatewood played 23 minutes and scored 12 points. She was 3-6 from behind the arc and hit a driving layup plus a free throw in the waning seconds that ultimately sealed the outcome.
Coach Pat Summitt said on the radio show that it was essentially a broken play and in that case, Wiley-Gatewood was to make the read and make a decision. She made the right one by driving the lane, a move that UConn clearly wasn't expecting.
"This game was dedicated to the coaches and the seniors on this team, and I'm just happy I was there to help them win this game," Wiley-Gatewood said Saturday.
Moore had her best game of the season – and was applauded roundly by Summitt and her teammates for her defensive intensity. But it was her offensive output that opened eyes, especially after she hit two 3-pointers and finished with 12 points. Fellow senior Shyra Ely had 11 points and was the leading rebounder with nine.
Summitt was wearing a microphone during the game, and everyone watching heard her tell Ely to pick up her defensive intensity and rebounding, or she was coming out. Ely responded.
"I thought her attitude of the game was one of a real competitor," Summitt said.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma had said before the game that UT's upperclassmen were key, especially senior Brittany Jackson and junior Shanna Zolman, who had hurt UConn in the past with their long-range jumpers. His defense was designed to stop them on the perimeter, and it worked. They were both held scoreless. But the game plan couldn't also account for the freshmen.
If post-season awards were voted on today, Anosike would win most-improved player. She started and played 26 minutes because Tennessee needed her defensive attitude and rebounding ability. She wasn't asked to be a scorer, but she finished with eight points. In fact, the three freshmen accounted for 11 of Tennessee's last 14 points.
Summitt has paid Anosike one of the biggest compliments ever bestowed. She said Anosike had been unfocused at only one practice so far this season. Her detachment was due to a class she was thinking about.
Hornbuckle, on the other hand, got tossed out of practice this past Wednesday, but that may have been a calculated move. Summitt said it was for lack of defensive intensity, though it wasn't apparent from the sideline that Hornbuckle had slacked off. At any rate, Summitt knew Hornbuckle's defense would be needed in Hartford, and she would be coming off the bench instead of starting since Moore was back. It may have been done simply to fire her up. It worked.
Anosike, who started Saturday at the high post or "4" position but also played at the low post or "5" position, has been earning raves from the coaching staff since her individual workouts in September. Here's what assistant coach Nikki Caldwell had to say before the season even started.
"Nicky is somebody who's going to be a great leader by example," Caldwell said. "If you want to go quick, if you want to go with a running lineup, Nicky gives you that versatility. She can play the 4 and the 5 for us because of her size. Our 4 man we allow to roam around the high post area, staff out to the wing, so there's a little bit more guard skills involved for that area.
"The 4 player is just as important in our offense as the point guard. A lot of our offense can run through the 4 player. I think Nicky, with her passing, her vision, her unselfish play, can obviously fit into that role for us."
On Saturday, Anosike had three assists and repeatedly made the right decision with the ball - take it to the hoop, kick it out or pass down low. She limited her turnovers to two.
Her defensive presence was paramount in the UConn game. Earlier in the season, she was prone to foul trouble. On Saturday she only had two personal fouls. She also had been a liability from the free throw line, but has worked to improve there, too. On Saturday, she was 4-8. She is playing more minutes, because she brings so much energy and attitude to the paint.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer saw the future of Tennessee when the Cardinal played in Knoxville in December and lost 70-67.
"Tennessee is a team that has great athleticism, they have a Hall of Fame coach, they have a puzzle that in December is not going to be put together," VanDerveer said. "It's still a process, as we are still a process. Tennessee's fans can be really excited about the young personnel they have and not put a lot of pressure on young players like Anosike."
Here's a prophetic remark from Ely in early November. At the time the flow of practice was halted a lot as the freshmen learned the system.
Anosike and fellow freshman center Sybil Dosty had to learn both post positions. Hornbuckle was immersed in the point guard, wing and small forward positions. (She ended up playing all three Saturday.)
"Once they learn the system and learn practice and the way we do things, I think things will run so much smoother," Ely said in November. "But for now I think they did a good job, and they're really holding their own and competing with us every day. I think they'll really be a huge impact for the team."
That "huge impact" arrived Saturday, and none too soon for the seniors.