Hornbuckle and Jenny Moshak, the assistant athletics director for sports medicine, met Thursday with Dr. Robert Ivy to go over the results of Hornbuckle's bone scan. They learned then that she was cleared to play as long as she wears a protective device. It was one month and one day since she had the surgery to place a fixation screw in her right wrist to aid in the healing of her broken navicular scaphoid bone.
"It'd be a huge boost," freshman forward Candace Parker had said when asked Wednesday – before the team knew the results – what impact Hornbuckle's return would have. "Huge. She anchors our defense and our offense. She runs the show. We've held it down while she was gone, but that would be a huge boost. I hope that she's ready. We're all praying for her just for the sake of her. I know how it is to sit out, and you can't do anything."
Hornbuckle never let her predicament bring down the team. She broke the wrist Feb. 12 against Vanderbilt and missed seven games – four in the regular season and three in the SEC Tournament. She spent the first week in a huge hard cast watching on the sidelines. When she got a fiberglass cast a week later she started wandering onto the floor to walk through a few drills, make some passes and shoot left-handed free throws. When she got a GORE-TEX cast two weeks ago, she started running full-court drills. When her teammates had to run sprints, she lined up with them.
She could have sat on the sidelines, but she didn't. She started getting her ankles taped. She pulled her socks up to her knees and stretched with the team. She wore a practice jersey to keep the right arm tucked between it and a T-shirt so she wouldn't hurt herself or anyone else. She only used her left hand – to break the press with the dribble, rebound, pass and hit layups. She got so high in the air in practice Monday that her left hand slapped the glass of the backboard as she gently let go of the ball. In the past week, she started using her right arm to steady the ball when she caught it.
"She's been great; she's been terrific," coach Pat Summitt said last week. "She's trying to keep herself in shape."
Two weeks ago, Summitt said the intent was to keep Hornbuckle in shape and pray for a miracle. Tennessee got it.
"Emotionally, this is a great boost for Alexis and our entire team going into the NCAA Tournament," Summitt said. "We recognize what Alexis has meant to our team this year and while injured her attitude has been tremendous as she has stayed mentally and emotionally involved in all of our games."
Tennessee, 28-4, opens play Sunday against Army, 20-10, at noon (ESPN2, Lady Vols Radio Network) in Norfolk, Va. The team will practice Friday afternoon in Knoxville before leaving for Virginia.
Hornbuckle's 10.4 points per game is still good for third-best on the team behind Parker (16.6) and Shanna Zolman (15.0). Junior forward Sidney Spencer and senior center Tye'sha Fluker are tied for fourth with 9.6 ppg. Hornbuckle's 5.4 rebounds per game remains second on the team; she is now tied with Fluker. Parker leads the team at 8.5 rpg.
Hornbuckle said Monday after the selection show that she was hopeful about making it back. She had done all she was asked to do, and now the decision rested with the results of a bone scan. With the bone healed, her medical status is completely clear. But she still must regain strength in the lower arm and flexibility in the wrist. That could limit her participation in Tennessee's early round play, but she will be dressed out and ready.
The return was a welcome change for a Tennessee team that has endured several blows this season. It started with the death of Summitt's father, Richard Head, who succumbed to illness in the preseason. Summitt missed practice for the first time in her 32-year coaching career to attend his funeral, and several players were able to travel to Middle Tennessee to hear their coach deliver an emotional eulogy in his memory.
In December, the starting point guard, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, decided to transfer. Several players, including her best friend and roommate in Hornbuckle, wrote her number on their shoes. Then Hornbuckle went down, and the naysayers declared Tennessee's season to be over.
Zolman had to pick up most of the slack at the point position. The sharp-shooting two guard moved to the top of the offense with help from Parker, who handled the quicker guards when Tennessee needed to break the press.
Zolman said Wednesday, "It would always be a boost whenever you can get a player like Alexis to come back because she can add so much to our team. She can bring a different aspect to the game as far as getting out and creating through penetration and with quickness and her ball handling."
Hornbuckle will need some time to re-acclimate to game speed, but Zolman might be the second-happiest player on the team. With Hornbuckle available to run the point, Zolman can remain on the wing, where she is the most dangerous because of her shooting ability. There was a secondary benefit. In the past month while running the point Zolman finally became comfortable as a senior leader, and her confidence soared.
Hornbuckle also will bring even more swagger to a team that has hit its stride in the postseason. The Lady Vols were given a No. 2 seed in the overall No. 1 seed's bracket, and were already peeved. They are entering the tournament with the biggest chip on their shoulder in Zolman's career.
"By far – just because we've never been slapped in the face like this before," Zolman said. "We usually think that having by far heads above the competition the most-difficult schedule and RPI that that usually counts for something. But in this case it doesn't. Going through the adversity, having third-string-not-true point guard being a point guard and being able to overcome so much adversity, win a SEC tournament. What else are you going to throw against us?
"We've gone through everything this year. There's really nothing any other team can do to us that's going to break our spirits because it's not going to happen. Nothing is going to crack us. That's the position that we want to be in right now. You don't want to get Tennessee angry, and the committee did that so we'll just wait and see what happens in the tournament."
Zolman laughed as she called herself a "third-string-not-true point guard." Parker's sense of humor is also intact. She outlined how much she and the team went through from the summer until now, especially the preseason workouts with Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach.
"This is the time that people dream of," Parker said. "This is what you play your whole regular season for is this right here to get a number two seed."
She stopped speaking to wait for the laughter to subside and then smiled.
"It's OK. We worked hard," Parker said. "This is where everything, every rehab day, the whole summer we spent here, lifting weights, preseason when Heather's killing us, this is everything. Everything rides on this.
"I was angry the second that I heard it, but my personality is to take things and kind of twist them – even though they may not seem that positive – into the most positive. If they think that we deserve a two seed … it's not like there's a rulebook that says two seeds can't win national championships. It's just going to make it that much harder. Nothing's easy. The way I look at it, it will just be that more sweet at the end."