Lady Vols look to restore tradition

When Alexis Hornbuckle got back to Knoxville after going zero for six from the field against Kentucky, she headed to the basketball court to practice her jump shots. She recruited a friend to rebound for her and fired up shots in the wee hours of Friday morning. A few hours later, two former Lady Vols stood on the court and addressed the team in what was both a scolding and a morale booster.

Former Tennessee teammates Shelley Sexton and Melissa (McCray) Dukes gathered with the team at center court and spoke softly but passionately about what it means to play for Tennessee. Sexton, who played from 1983 to 1987, and Dukes, who played from 1985 to 1989, came on their own to see coach Pat Summitt and to talk to the players.

Tennessee (18-2, 4-1) is coming off of back-to-back losses to Duke and Kentucky, the first time the Lady Vols have dropped two games in a row since the 10-loss season of 1996-97. On Sunday the Alabama Crimson Tide comes to Knoxville in what will be the first home game in more than two weeks.

"They live here, and they wanted to be here today," Summitt said. "I said, ‘What are you doing here.' And Melissa said, ‘I'm here for you. I'm here because I care.' They talked to them about the defense, and Shelley said she didn't recognize the team."

According to Summitt, Dukes told the players: "I can't believe that's Tennessee's defense. When we were here we all played it; we all believed it. You don't even seem to be together on this."

The essence of the scolding was: "Who are you? Whose system is this?" Summitt said.

Both Alexis Hornbuckle, a sophomore point guard, and Shanna Zolman, a senior guard, said the talk was eye opening.

"The primary focus of this championship traditional historical system in Tennessee has been about defense and rebounding and people come back and say, ‘I don't who that was out there. I don't know who was out there playing because it wasn't Tennessee. That wasn't the Tennessee system that I've known for 30-plus years.' That hurts because this is a team that we're a part of," Zolman said. "I don't want to be known personally as the team that just destroyed the Tennessee system because we all failed to buy into it. That's not something I want to be known for after I leave this place."

But the former players also imparted words of solace to the current players and reminded them that Tennessee was a family that stuck together.

"I think it definitely opens up our eyes to see the love, and this family never dies no matter what year you play, no matter if you're still in the state, no matter if you watch the games, whether they call or they come back personally. Just to see the love that the Lady Vol family has – that just opened up our eyes and our hearts to see these people really care," Hornbuckle said. "We're playing not only for the program, we're playing for ourselves and playing for Pat's players. Like Melissa was saying we have to play not for ourselves but for our teammates."

Hornbuckle spent a few hours early Friday morning playing alone after she failed to hit a field goal in Thursday's 66-63 loss in Lexington. After the team's bus rolled into Knoxville, Hornbuckle headed to the court and stayed for about an hour.

"I came in the gym about 1:30 (a.m.) and shot," Hornbuckle said. "I didn't leave until I made 150. It's just a confidence factor. After going zero for six I said, ‘I need to do something.' One of my friends came in and helped me rebound. Just getting in the gym and getting it done."

The team shot 39.3 percent from the field. Zolman was 3-12; Sidney Spencer was 3-10. It was a miserable shooting night for all three perimeter players who combined to shoot 6-28.

"Her shot's going to come back to her with a matter of confidence," Hornbuckle said of the sharpshooter Zolman. "With me it's just a matter of once I release the shot, just believe it's going in instead of saying, ‘Hey I'm putting up this shot.' "

It was individual-styled play that doomed Tennessee in its two games this week. So the team watched film and met for most of the allotted practice time Friday. They spent about 30 minutes on the court and devoted that time to defense and board play.

"We had a team meeting and watched film," Summitt said. "I think there was a lot of information shared by everyone. I think the whole purpose of the meeting was for our team to understand the lack of commitment we have to our system and the lack of possession play. You have to be really mindful of possessions in this game, and we took a lot off. But we've been taking a lot off, and we've been getting by with it.

"Defensively we might have three people playing good defense … . It's just like you build a house. You've got to build every room of the house; that's what makes it work. You've got to have a great foundation. The foundation of this program is defense and rebounding. We're trying to put up a house without building a foundation. We're trying to win in the end, but we have no foundation. Now they understand that defense and board play and communication and committing to the system, that's how you win."

The team appeared to still be emotionally reeling from Monday night's loss to Duke when the players took the court against Kentucky.

"First half killed us and then we're in the panic mode at times and not matching up out of our defense," Summitt said. "I told my staff I should have gone man late in the game, probably last two possessions. That's our bread and butter, but for this team we haven't had a real bread and butter, and we've got to get that. We've got to have something that we know will be a real staple to our defensive execution."

Zolman said she had put the Duke game behind her, but she noted that although the team did play with more heart against Kentucky, it wasn't playing very smart basketball.

"From my perspective, no. It wasn't lingering," Zolman said. "From my point of view we learned as much as we could from it; we went over it, and we learned. We practiced a little bit (before leaving for Kentucky). Personally my mind was clear from Duke. Each game, whether it's a win or a loss, you've got to learn from it and forget about it. There's no reason to dwell on it. You can't dwell on it; you're going to be a disaster all season. We just have a lot of things that we need to improve upon on the defensive side of the ball before we can continue to be successful on any stage or any platform that we're playing on. I think hopefully we've learned enough right now that we can start going again."

Hornbuckle had to get over not only the Duke loss but also the onslaught of insults hurled her way by the Blue Devil fans over a shoplifting charge against her in the summer after her senior year in high school. The items were small – beach towels and glasses – and she settled the case and performed community service. The remarks began during warmups and continued throughout the game.

"In the beginning, no," Hornbuckle said when asked if it bothered her. "It's like motivation. To me it reminded me of high school. At the beginning of the game I was fired up, defense, offense. But as soon as our team bought into the frustration and me being the floor leader a lot falls back onto me. I can't get my players to do something, and I'm not doing it myself and coach is coming back on me, any little thing can fire up your anger. I think that after a while I was really getting frustrated and please shut up.

"Those fans are crazy. Coach said you can't prepare for something like that but I kind of expected that. I'm surprised it didn't happen in my freshman year. When they said it, it didn't really catch me off guard but at the same time I was like, ‘Wow it's finally here.' Them being a lot closer to the court you're able to hear every little word. Once we got frustrated I'm kind of listening to everything that's going on rather than refocusing on what I need to get done. In a way it got underneath my skin after the fact in the second half."

Zolman said the team initially was not bothered, but it eventually wore on the players.

"It affected the team because it affected her," Zolman said. "I don't think we really knew the effect that it did have on her at that time. The more we look back on it, the more we talk about it, it did have an effect on us and on her. That's something that coach had talked about it. When we went in the locker room beforehand, we were talking about it, and we were almost even joking about it. When you start getting frustrated anything anybody says is going to get you more and more frustrated. That game was just so horrible. Every single one of us was playing an individual game. We just got demolished. That game was like the Rutgers game last year, an absolute demolishing of us, the team, the system, everything. We just have to put that game behind us. I think the Kentucky game is more so what we're learning on right now."

Summitt said after the Kentucky game that her team needs practice time to learn fundamental defense. It was a shortcoming in November, and it's still an issue with a little more than two months left in the season.

"We're getting back to the team – just getting back to the Tennessee style of basketball, buying into coach's system again and just bringing it every single day," Zolman said. "We haven't been showing that the past couple of games, and it shows. We're struggling."

Zolman wants the team to put the debacle of Duke behind them and focus on what Kentucky did to Tennessee. Wildcat coach Mickie DeMoss said after the game that her team felt they could score on Tennessee. For a program that prides itself on defense, that's quite an indictment.

"That hurts," Zolman said. "As we talked about today at our meeting that's what hurts the most. It means so much to us right now to get back to playing Tennessee style of ball because obviously it's worked. We have six banners up there right now. It's worked in the past, and it's going to work if we buy into it."

The Duke game showed the players they could be beaten by a top team. The Kentucky game showed the players they were vulnerable against anybody if they didn't start listening to the coaching staff.

"It puts it even more so in perspective because that was the game where we did fight. It's not like we didn't play hard; we just didn't play smart," Zolman said. "They played extremely well. I've never seen them play that hard, but that's the story of our lives. We play against everybody who's never played that hard. But that's not a pity party or a soapbox I'm getting on; that's just the truth. That's why every single game we have to be able to bring our A game. And when we don't things like last night happen. I think it did open our eyes so much more just because it was an unranked team, it was a team that we should have beaten handily in all honesty, but we didn't because of our selfishness, because of our (lack of) discipline, and because we failed to buy into Pat's system."

But Zolman also said the players have to be practical. They can't panic. They have to realize there is still plenty of time to fix their problems. They can get the swagger back that led to an 18-0 start.

"There's no question in my mind, and it will come back," Zolman said. "I will make sure that that does come back. It's not postseason right now. That's why it takes a whole season … and just because we've had two losses the world is not ending. We're still alive and kicking and living life to its fullest. But right now we've been hurt, we've been humbled, we've been humiliated, but right now it's all about us getting back on track. We will get that swagger back. We have had it taken away a little bit, and I'm sure this has given a lot of teams extra confidence coming in when they're playing us. That still doesn't shatter who we are."

Tennessee will return to the practice court Saturday afternoon to prepare for Alabama. Game time Sunday is at 1 p.m. Eastern at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"I think the fans are probably wondering what's going on, but at the same time we have such great fan support that they won't stop, they won't quit on us," Hornbuckle said. "They're giving us the benefit of the doubt that Tennessee is built on heart and so much competitive success that we're able to turn it around so basically that's all we need to do is turn it around."

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