"Well, as I told them sometimes you have to do things by committee," coach Pat Summitt said. "We're not going to cancel the rest of the season. We have to individually step up and share responsibility for our defense, our offense. There's no way that we can expect one player, i.e. Shanna, to be our sole point guard. You just can't do it. We lost a player on the perimeter that we don't have another like. With her ability to create off the dribble and create for other people, she just got inside the defense, she pushed the tempo, she set the tone for us on the offensive end. Sure we can ask Nicky Anosike to do more (on the defensive perimeter), but we don't have another Alexis on the perimeter. We just don't."
Alexis Hornbuckle broke the bone while diving over the ball in a hustle play with 3:06 left in the first half in the 70-67 win over Vandy. In the scramble for the loose ball she sprinted to the baseline and - realizing it was touched last by a Commodore player - leaped over the ball so as not to touch it. She landed in the row of cheerleaders, and the ball was awarded to Tennessee. Hornbuckle got taped at halftime and played the rest of the game. She was a key player in Tennessee's comeback win over the Commodores.
Jenny Moshak, UT assistant athletics director for sports medicine, said Hornbuckle "shook it off and played on sheer adrenaline for the rest of the game." She came to the post-game press conference with an ice bag on her right wrist. She dismissed the pain and said she would sleep it off and would feel better the next day. What happened Monday morning was a nightmare for Tennessee.
X-rays confirmed a break of the navicular scaphoid bone. Dr. Robert Ivy, the team's orthopedic hand specialist, will examine all of the test results to determine the extent of the damage and whether or not surgery will be required. Once Hornbuckle undergoes further diagnostic testing, a course of treatment will be determined.
(On Tuesday, the Lady Vols announced that Hornbuckle would need surgery. It will be done Wednesday.
"Dr. Ivy will perform the surgery to implant a fixation screw to assist in the healing of the navicular scaphoid bone fracture," Moshak said.)
Hornbuckle left the arena Sunday with a light splint, but Summitt already feared the worst after talking to Moshak.
"Last night when I left I don't think Jenny thought she'd be fine," Summitt said. She anticipated problems."
The team basically knew before practice started that Hornbuckle was out.
"We pretty much knew before practice started," Summitt said. "That was the anticipation, and she told them she thought she was probably done for the year. I thought they had a good workout. I mean they know they've got to get ready to go to Georgia. It's not like we've got time for a pity party - some of the quickest guards and one of the fastest teams in the country."
The final confirmation came by way of phone when Moshak called Summitt during practice. Summitt took a few moments to talk with Hornbuckle on the phone and then also met with her after practice in the locker room.
"Obviously she's taking it as well as can be expected," Summitt said. "I'm sure she's devastated. She's just a great competitor and loves the game. I don't know that she's ever had an injury really keep her out of the game."
The fracture is a serious injury and takes weeks to properly heal. There is no scenario under which she could return this season, so the huge role played by guard Shanna Zolman just mushroomed. Her committee help will come by way of forwards Candace Parker and Dominique Redding and possibly freshman Lindsey Moss, if she can accelerate her game quickly enough.
"First you have to accept it and move on," Summitt said. "Then you have to get the players to understand they're all very much accountable now. Sometimes I'm sure we have players on our team who really don't feel great responsibility for whether we win or lose or how we play. That just changed. That just changed totally. If we're playing nine players, it's going to be very apparent as to who's not bringing it, who is bringing it."
Tennessee has now lost two members of its starting backcourt. Sophomore point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood decided to transfer in December. Hornbuckle stepped into her role full-time - she had been playing primarily on the wings - and had helped lead Tennessee to a 22-3 record and No. 5 ranking.
"As a coach and a coaching staff you never want to lose anyone," Summitt said. "But after losing one guard I thought many times, 'Well, we really can't afford to lose Alexis. She plays so hard. We can't afford to lose her.' So having said that, that pretty much speaks for how it felt."
The three losses already left some teams thinking Tennessee would be especially vulnerable in the postseason this year. The loss of Hornbuckle just solidified that view to some fans and opponents. To people thinking it's time to stick a fork in the Lady Vols because they're done, Zolman had a heartfelt response.
"You never stick a fork in Tennessee," Zolman said. "When people think that, I think that's when we become the most dangerous. I think I'm almost looking for it right now that people are going to be (saying) odds are against us, now more than ever. Personally that's what I love. We may not have the same look as we had when Lex was in, but we're still going to be a successful team. Just because we lost Lex doesn't mean that we lost every single one of the All-Americans that have come in to play here. As much as I love that girl, as much as she brought to this team, we still have to go on. We still have to move on, we still have to, as a team, collectively be able to be successful, and I have no doubt that we're going to be able to do that."
Tennessee has done it before when Zolman was a sophomore. Then-junior Loree Moore injured her knee in late January and was lost for the season. Tennessee, led by senior Tasha Butts, made it to the championship game. Last year, junior Sidney Spencer injured her knee in February and was lost for the season. Spencer was the fourth player to be lost to knee surgery last season, and that team made it to the Final Four.
"It's going to be crucial for myself to show so much leadership right now and be able to come out and not only show confidence in myself but show confidence in the team and saying, 'It's going to be OK.' I look back on my career, and I've wondered why certain things have happened," Zolman said. "For example, Loree Moore went out and Tasha had to take the point. I helped her a little bit, but primarily Tasha took the point. The example that she showed at that time and knowing that no, she wasn't a true point guard, but yet she took complete control, and she did the things that she had to do for the team. We still made the Final Four that year, and that was the year everybody thought that we overachieved. It's no different this year.
"I have another year and my point guard goes out, and this time it's my turn. I'm not a true point guard but yet I've got to show the confidence that I have in myself and in my team. I have to go out and portray to my team, 'It's going to be OK. We've been struggling as of late but yet that doesn't mean that the season's over with.' Not only Georgia but for the rest of the season. I'm not looking to go home early. I'm not looking for anything other than our original goal of a national championship. Lex is obviously an awesome player, she's a leader for us, and we're going to miss her a lot. But we can't just sit and contemplate what would have been or what might have happened. It's done, it's over with, she's out. So we've got to move on from there."
The coaching staff added some wrinkles Monday at practice, and Summitt experimented again with a big lineup by putting senior Tye'sha Fluker in the paint with Anosike and moving Parker to the perimeter. Anosike can move out of the paint and guard perimeter players, such as she did against Vandy's Dee Davis.
"Most likely put Fluker back in and move Candace to the three," Summitt said of her possible starters for Thursday's game at Georgia. "As far as today we worked on that a little bit," but the lineup could change if she opts to leave Parker in the paint.
Redding, a forward who made her first career start Sunday, will likely see more action in Athens and will be called upon to spell Zolman at the point. She also has been through the pain of losing teammates mid or late season to injury.
"It's sad to say, but we're used to it," Redding said. "So everybody's got to step up and do more."
"February is our cursed month," Zolman said. "We lost Sid. We lost Loree the last part of January. It's going to be interesting to see how we face and handle this type of adversity even more so than already losing Gate and with the (three) losses."