Tennessee ready for tip after two-week wait

NORFOLK, Va. – The Lady Vol players found out in different ways that Alexis Hornbuckle was back. One saw it on the news. Another got a call from a parent. But no matter how they heard, they all had the same reaction: excitement that the point guard was cleared to play Sunday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Alexis Hornbuckle went to her doctor Thursday with Jenny Moshak, assistant athletics director for sports medicine, to view her bone scan and find out if she could play. The team was off that day so they didn't assemble as a unit. Instead, the news got to them one by one.

"It kind of trickled down," freshman forward Candace Parker said. "I was really excited about it."

Senior guard Shanna Zolman, who became the point guard when Hornbuckle broke her wrist last month, got a call from her father. He had just heard the news on national television.

Senior center Tye'sha Fluker was watching the local news with some friends.

"They started showing clips of Lex and they were talking about how she was back to play," Fluker said. "I was sitting there like, ‘I didn't know that.' People who were sitting around me were going, ‘Is she really? What's going on?' And I was like, ‘I don't know.' I gave her a phone call and left her a message. I was really excited to hear the good news for her and for the team."

Hornbuckle will get her first chance at game action since Feb. 12 when Tennessee, 28-4, opens NCAA play Sunday afternoon against Army, 20-10, at the Ted Constant Convocation Center at noon. (ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network).

"I'm pleased, gosh, very excited," coach Pat Summitt said. "She's so good off the ball. I think that she's the kind of player when you need something to happen, when you need the basketball she's going to get it. She's defensively going to raise everybody else's level through her own intensity and energy and leadership. We need that. She's the kind of player who will turn around and say, ‘We've got to get a stop,' and hold her teammates to a little bit different level."

Hornbuckle will be in a reserve role. She must get back to game speed, and also she has to get used to the brace she's wearing on her right wrist to protect the navicular scaphoid bone.

Tennessee will stick with its big lineup of Zolman (5'10), Sidney Spencer (6'3) and Candace Parker (6'4) on the perimeter and Nicky Anosike (6'4) and Tye'sha Fluker (6'5) inside.

Army is expected to start: Jen Hansen, No. 34, 5'10 junior guard (5.1 points per game, 2.4 rebounds per game), Army's all-time leader in three-point field goals made with 142; Alex McGuire, No. 22, 5'8 freshman guard (11.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg), Patriot League rookie of the year, has scored in double figures 20 times this season; Cara Enright, No. 12, 5'10 sophomore guard (16.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg), this year's league player of the year and last year's league rookie of the year, has scored 20 or more points nine times this season; Stefanie Stone, No. 20, 5'11 sophomore forward (9.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg), leads the league in field goal percentage at 57.7 percent; and Megan Vrabel, No. 11, 6'1 senior forward (6.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), reached career marks of 200 rebounds and 300 points earlier this season and now has 276 career boards and 368 career points.

Hornbuckle said she is very comfortable with a limited role.

"I'm the type of player it's whatever it takes for the team," Hornbuckle said. "If that means coming in playing two to four-minutes segments that's fine with me. As long as we're winning, I'm smiling. It's a team game. As long as I'm on the court helping the team that's fine with me."

Hornbuckle also will have to play with some limitations, though she wasn't about to reveal what they were.

"How does it limit me?" Hornbuckle said in repeating a reporter's question. "I can't throw out my limitations so that people can read that. They'll just have to find out when I come out there."

Hornbuckle does know what she can bring to the team.

"I want to bring a little more intensity to the defensive end," she said. "That's my main focus any time I step on the court. I want to bring that defensive spark back. As far as offense this team has been doing a great job executing. They've been doing a great job on the defensive end as well. But I just want to be able to rebound and play defense. That's the two more important things in the game. As long as I'm able to do that, I'm happy.

"I think offense might be the more difficult aspect of the game as far as coming back. It's not that I haven't been practicing so I'm not lost."

Summitt will be curious to see Hornbuckle in full practice and game situations. Her return for the first round is fortuitous for Tennessee because the coaching staff can evaluate her play early, and Hornbuckle can get accustomed to the brace on her wrist. It encompasses two splint-type pieces and some padding and tape and is about the same size as a regular cast. It covers most of her lower arm and a portion of her hand.

"The bone is healing nicely," said Moshak, who "definitely" had no qualms about Hornbuckle taking the floor. "They're looking at 50 to 75 percent healed according to the CT scan. It's doing very well; it's not done. She's cleared to play with the protective device, and there's a risk, and the risk is minimal, but it's real – and that's the quote from the doctor – so she needs to (be protected). As long as it's protected, and he was comfortable with the protection then we're fine.

"It's custom-made to her wrist, and it protects her wrist from the motions he wants protected and from the fear of falling."

Moshak didn't know prior to the Thursday meeting if Dr. Robert Ivy would release Hornbuckle, but she said she was optimistic.

"She's ahead of schedule, but we don't jeopardize the future so if it was a matter for the future we weren't going to take that chance," Moshak said. "It's healing very well and to the point with the proper protection everyone is comfortable with the situation, and that's where we are."

Statistically speaking Hornbuckle is still the third-leading scorer on the team at 10.4 ppg. She was the second-leading rebounder, but now Fluker has tied her for the same spot at 5.4 rpg. Despite missing seven games she still leads the team in steals with 81. Parker is second with 52, and Anosike third with 43. Hornbuckle is second in assists with 99. Zolman leads the team with 102, and Parker is third with 91.

"We've done a good job and we've had to adjust without her," Fluker said. "Knowing that we've been able to rise to the challenge of adjusting without her and now we have her back it's going to be great. We need her. I don't know exactly how her wrist is going to feel. Nobody knows that yet but just to know we have her with us.

"I don't think it's an adjustment (for the team). Anytime you lose a player that's so good like she is and then you get her back it's like more of excitement. It's just going to elevate the game of the team. Lex steadies us on the court. I'm excited that she can actually be out there and go through warmups with us. She brings great energy to our team. She is still a leader."

Zolman, assisted by Parker, handled the point position and will continue to do so as Hornbuckle eases back into the game. Both are happy to see Hornbuckle back in uniform.

"I think it will help us, just her presence on the floor both offensively and defensively," Parker said. "She's our only true point guard on the team. She's going to bring a lot."

"I'm excited she's going to come back and she's there and available for us," Zolman said. "If we do take care of the business early on in the next couple of games and we look ahead to a possible matchup with Rutgers, possible with North Carolina, they're so athletic and they bring so much pressure defensively, that it's going to be great to know that we can have somebody else that's going to help us, step in, somebody like Lex, who was our initial point guard anyway.

"It's a comfort zone to know we can fall back, and know she's going to be there to help us. I think it adds to our focus because not only do we know we can do this – we have full confidence in ourselves – getting Lex back adds to that. The whole seeding issues adds even more emphasis on the focus factor for us, because we know what we have to do. We take it from the standpoint it's possible the championship game could be in the Elite Eight for us – that's the kind of competition that we have – but we're so excited to go into it. We're so excited to get this thing started and just get going. We tried to put Monday night behind us as quickly as possible. We can't do anything about it. We don't want to change anything. We're looking forward to moving on and taking one game at a time. We're definitely on the up and up."

The team's indignity at the No. 2 seed in the overall No. 1's bracket seems far removed now. The players emerged from their press conference and locker room interviews full of energy and smiles as they took the floor for an open practice before a few dozen fans, whose numbers got bigger later into the practice. The ones there when the team came out gave them a standing ovation.

Hornbuckle drew a cheer with every made shot, but it took her some time to find her range.

"I think I'm loving the baseline," Hornbuckle said.

The brace will require an adjustment on offense, but it didn't appear to interfere too much with passing and ball handling. Free throws initially were an adventure – she missed the first four – and her first made one drew applause from the fans. After Hornbuckle hit a long-range shot, she did a quick dance.

After practice the players gathered at mid-court to attempt last-second shots at the basket. Hornbuckle didn't leave it short. Instead she put too much muscle behind the ball and heaved it well over the backboard. The shot brought laughter and an arm flex from Hornbuckle. Parker ended the post-practice tradition with a swish through the net. Also, by tradition, her teammates threw basketballs at her.

The team appeared loose on the court, but they went through some drill work with shooting and post moves and appeared to be energized just by being on the floor finally on the eve of a game.

"I'm excited to get playing again," Parker said. "I'm really excited to get this thing going."

After two weeks off from games the team is ready to line up against a real opponent. The Black Knights are one of the best stories of the tournament. Their first-year coach, Maggie Dixon, took the job 12 days before practice started and earned the league coach of the year honor by season's end. Army beat Holy Cross by one point in the Patriot League tournament to earn the military academy its first appearance in the NCAA tourney.

After the Lady Vols cleared the court, the Army squad took the floor for its workout.

"Our team is very happy to be here," said Dixon, who is part of the only brother-sister head coaching duo in Division I basketball, because brother Jamie Dixon coaches at Pitt. "We've been through so much as a team the last couple of weeks. Being here and being able to play on a national stage is just a credit to our players and everything we accomplished throughout the year. We are really excited to be representing the Academy and the United States Army in the NCAA Tournament."

The two teams have played once before in a holiday tournament in Puerto Rico in 2002 when Zolman and Fluker were freshmen. Tennessee won, 96-44, and Zolman and Fluker came off the bench to score 15 and six points, respectively.

"We came out strong but could only really hang with them for less than a half, so once the game hit a 20-point margin our coach let everyone play," Vrabel said. "As a freshman I wasn't getting many minutes; I got in and scored a basket, and it was like the highlight of my year. So I think we ran out of gas way too early last time, and our program has gradually gotten stronger since then."

The players expressed confidence in their pre-game press conference that they could compete with the Lady Vols, despite the size differential.

"The big joke in the locker room is if you have to switch screens, go ahead and do it, because we are going to be outsized no matter who we are guarding," Dixon said. "We just need to work with what we have."

The Lady Vols are expecting a game effort from a team that plays well together and with discipline.

"We approach it as we do any other opponent who stepped on the floor," Parker said. "They're worthy because they made it in the NCAA Tournament. They're definitely another opponent that's going to come out there and give it their all. It's do or die right now. Everybody is going to give you their best shot."

The players gave separate interviews, but it sounded as if they were a team of one.

"We're going to approach them like we approach every other game, approach them like we approached every team in the SEC championship, approach them as a game we have to win, which we do," Anosike said. "I think we're going to be focused just like we were in that tournament, because this is more important than that."

"It's just like any other tournament game," Zolman said. "A team like Army we know they're going to be hard-nosed. They work really hard on the floor. We've just got to go in the game acting like it is a national championship because that's the central focus of our game right now. That's where we've got to go, and we've got six more games until we get there. It doesn't really matter who we play; that's going to be our focus."

Summitt would like to see her team pick up where it stopped in the SEC Tournament. Her players rebounded, defended, executed on offense and absorbed scouting reports. Parker earned tournament most valuable player honors, and Spencer was named to the all-tourney team. When Hornbuckle went down Parker stepped up her overall game.

"She needs to basically be as assertive as she was in the SEC Tournament," Summitt said. "She took on a lot more responsibility, ownership of what's going to happen when we're on the offensive end. It was significant. We've seen games where obviously she just took over for us."

Parker helped out at point, especially when it came to breaking pressure, and played some games mostly on the perimeter. Other times she planted herself on the blocks and led her team in scoring and rebounding.

The one aspect of Tennessee's game that has been missing for the most part is transition action and fast-break points. That's where Hornbuckle's return is the most significant.

"It will definitely help our transition game with her being able to push the ball as well as she does," Anosike said. "I think we've been missing that the past few games. I think we'll be able to get that aspect back in our games."

The question does remain, however, as to how effective Hornbuckle can be and how many minutes she is ready to play.

"I'm just going to make the most of it because I'm not 100 percent," Hornbuckle said. "Well, I don't have two complete hands when I say I'm not 100 percent. The brace I wear it's kind of different. I can dribble and everything, but it's kind of like having … it's hard to explain."

Hornbuckle never gave up hope of coming back this season, but her rapid healing progress took even her by surprise.

"It definitely surprised me that I came back this early," said Hornbuckle, who ate more yogurt for the calcium and cut way back on Sprite. "There were a lot of prayers that went up back home at church and here. I was counting down the weeks from surgery so I saw it was a possibility I could come back toward the Final Four dates. It's definitely a surprise for it to be now."

It was quite a welcome one.

"It's exciting because you never want to sit out so you just wait for that opportunity to get back on the floor," said Hornbuckle, who took the news calmly. "I'm very calm. I'm a laidback person. I was kind of smiling. I was hoping, wait and see how the X-ray looked. I smiled. I just smiled."

Hornbuckle may not be able to bring too much in the early games, but if she can adjust to the brace, and Tennessee survives, there are some landmines on the horizon in the bracket.

The winner of Tennessee-Army will take on the winner of George Washington-Old Dominion on Tuesday evening for the right to go to Cleveland, the same place North Carolina, UCLA, Purdue and Rutgers, among others, are trying to get.

On Saturday ODU coach Wendy Larry was just happy to be home in Norfolk.

"I wish I had my ruby slippers on; there's no place like home, there's no place like home," Larry said.

The Lady Monarchs won't change their routine to get ready for the Colonials.

"I just think that the preparation goes unchanged," Larry said. "We are going to do everything that we did for our Sunday afternoon games during the regular season. It really provides us a sense of consistency. I believe that we need to go to neutral sites, but until that is collectively decided upon, I'm glad we could host here at Old Dominion, and we will continue to bid on every event the NCAA permits us to.

"Obviously the advantage of playing in your own facility that you are very comfortable with is something that could be negated based on your competition and who comes ready to play."

George Washington may at least be used to it. This is the third time in four years that the Colonials have played an opponent in the tourney on that team's home floor.

"Once the brackets come out, you look at the matchups, and then it's over and you go play," Colonial coach Joe McKeown said. "We aren't going to worry about it."

McKeown, whose team plays in the Atlantic 10 Conference, scheduled a tough slate of out of conference games in Virginia, Purdue, Texas, Villanova and Tennessee.

"I think one of the things that we were concerned about coming into the season was that our first games were against the Knicks, the Lakers, the Celtics and the Spurs," he joked. "I think what it did, we ended up 7-4 non-conference, is that it has allowed us to see what the great teams in our game look like, find out if we can compete with them, and we proved that we can. The other thing it allows us to do is gain some confidence, because we didn't get beat up during that stretch."

After the pairings were announced Tennessee cast itself in the underdog role, but that label could only apply if the Lady Vols get out of Norfolk with two wins and end up facing the Tar Heels in a regional final. None of the three teams in Tennessee's pod see the Lady Vols as anything but formidable.

The seeding initially knocked Tennessee's players and coaches for a loop, but they seemed to have put the controversy behind them. They do have long memories, though.

"We're not on our heels by any means," Zolman said. "We're so in the attack mode because this entire year everybody's been dogging on from Christmas on. If it's not adversity here it's somebody getting injured there or this team is being dwindled down, or we're not good enough, we're not playing well defensively. It's been so much this year as far as adversity and different things that have been occurring and happening throughout the second part of the season.

"In the same regards we're definitely not going anywhere. We have more confidence right now than we ever have had before this entire season, and that's where we need to be going into the tournament. We feel like we're peaking at the right time. Even though we may be ranked a number two seed we never view ourselves as the underdogs, because it doesn't matter who we play. Everybody is going to be so excited and anxious to play the orange, whether it's going to be Rutgers, whether it's going to be UCLA, Purdue, North Carolina, whoever it's going to be down the road hopefully after a win over Army, hopefully after a win over Old Dominion or George Washington, on down the line. One game at a time is what we've got to keep our focus on. I have full confidence that we can do it."

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report for the game against Army. Here is her assessment.

"They're a more guard-oriented team," Caldwell said. "I think they like to be patient with the basketball. They'll run selectively, mainly off turnovers. I think they look for early offense. High-low offense is something they like to get into – give you a four out, one in look. The versatility of their guards. Take the ball off the dribble. They do a great job of that. They do a great job of getting to the free throw line."

Tennessee will stick with what has worked – a big lineup and an inside-outside game.

"We're establishing that right off the bat, and we want to definitely control the boards," Caldwell said. "Look to change up what we do defensively, whether it's our man or our matchup zone. Just really try to utilize the fact that we do have size, and we've got versatility with that because you've got Candace and Sidney and you've got Nicky and Tye. We do have a big lineup, which allows us to pound the ball inside."

When asked about reintroducing Hornbuckle into the lineup, Caldwell said Tennessee would look to take advantage of what she adds to the lineup.

"Mainly making sure Alexis comes back and she does what she does best," Caldwell said. "Obviously we love her leadership, we love that she's a vocal guard for us, love the fact that she can push tempo in transition, get our transition game up and down. I think she does a great job on the defensive end. She obviously was one of our defensive stoppers so having her back was great. And then her ability to rebound from that position."

But the biggest addition may be one of attitude.

"I think Alexis, all those other things she brings to the table from a statistical standpoint, just how hard she worked preseason, once she stepped in and played the point and basically sacrificed her role as a guard to be a leader for this team," Caldwell said. "I just think it's an opportunity for her to show what she's worked so hard to do and get us to this point and her being able to play is just a great boost for us, not only from a basketball standpoint but for the morale of the team."

ODDS AND ENDS

BEST FACES: Those of several Lady Vol players in the locker room when shown a photo of a 12-year-old Alexis Hornbuckle in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" in 1998. Hornbuckle, shown with a big smile and some rather unruly pigtails, was featured for leading her team, the Breakers, to a Youth Basketball of America title, when she was 11 years old. She led the team in scoring, assists, steals and blocks and was tournament MVP.

A few players had seen the photo. Others had not and reacted with shrieks.

"What is that?" Tye'sha Fluker screamed.

"Y'all are hatin' on my sixth-grade picture," Hornbuckle said. "You're just jealous."

The assistant coaches were much kinder and declared the photo to be cute and adorable. Coach Pat Summitt said she hadn't changed that much eight years later.

"The smile hasn't changed; the hairdo's a lot better," Summitt said.

BEST NEWSPAPER QUOTE: Debbie Byrne, ODU's senior associate athletic director, who is overseeing the school's host site operations. "Tennessee fans are known to drive just about anywhere." She was quoted in the business section of The Virginian Pilot about the economic boost for the Norfolk and Virginia Beach areas – all seven visiting teams are staying in oceanfront hotels – because of the NCAA Tournament. Planners wanted the visiting teams to get a beach experience.

Tennessee fans were expected to be out in force for their school's game against Army. Since Norfolk is a military town with Navy and Air Force bases and a lot of personnel in the area from all branches, the Black Knights were expected to have a healthy fan base, too.

BEST POLICE ESCORTS: Those planned for the team buses when they try to leave their hotels for Norfolk. The Shamrock Sportsfest Marathon is being run Sunday morning in Virginia Beach, and several major roads will be shut down for some eight hours beginning at 6:30 a.m. to accommodate the event and 7,500 runners. City police have been asked to make sure the team buses can get out of the area and on the road to the Ted Constant Convocation Center.

BEST PREDICTION: Saturday morning's Virginian Pilot. The paper noted that Tennessee's Candace Parker had missed her one dunk attempt in a game this season but that she does dunk in workouts and warmups "so fans who show up (for the practice session) might get a glimpse of what all the fuss is about."

They did, and she did. Parker dunked twice and also tried to help teammate Dominique Redding dunk by lifting her up to the basket. Redding missed on multiple attempts. Center Tye'sha Fluker also got in on the fun by trying several times to dunk and came closer than most people probably thought she could. She had no trouble grabbing the rim. Guard Shanna Zolman didn't try. But she got a boost from Alex Fuller, Sybil Dosty and Fluker and managed to grab the rim with both hands and hold on. Dosty helped her get down.

MOST POPULAR: By far Pat Summitt. Fans clustered near one corner of the court to take photos and get autographs as Tennessee's practice concluded. Summitt managed to sign a few balls, a book and a baby, or the toddler's shirt at least, before she had to get off the floor. By NCAA rules she can't be present when Army is practicing, and their players were assembling on the court.

"I'm sorry," Summitt told the fans who pressed forward with more items for autographs. She promised to sign again later and smiled and said she hoped Tennessee would be sticking around for a few days.

PRACTICE FASHION: A lot of players cut up their practice T-shirts to give them more room in the arms and neck. Shanna Zolman actually added material this year. She wears a long sleeve shirt under the T-shirt. It's not unusual for her to be soaked with sweat after practice.

"I started because I was cold a couple of practices, and, I don't know, I just do it now," Zolman said.

BEST SHOW OF FORCE: Army. The Black Knights took the floor with 18 players dressed out. The Academy is permitted to fill a roster with more than the NCAA allotment of 15, and in one game this season against Coast Guard all 18 played. In other games, Army has put 12 to 15 players in the box score, and there are 10 who regularly rotate in. No player for Army averages more than 30 minutes per game. Tennessee has two players who do. Army may be deep, but only five of those players are more than six feet tall and two of those average two to four minutes a game.

"We have played a lot of teams this year that have outsized us, so we are actually used to it now," Dixon said. "We need to use our quickness to try to keep better space on the floor, and not try to pound opportunities if they are not there. I've talked to my team the past couple of games about being patient, waiting for good opportunities and attacking when the time presents itself.

"We have the advantage of being in the Academy, so we have more players on the bench than most teams. We want to use that to our advantage. This is the way we have played all year, and we won't be changing anything."

TRUE MULTI-USE OF A FACILITY: The Ted Constant Convocation Center. The center is home for the Old Dominion basketball programs, and the women's team will play in the second game Sunday against George Washington in one pod of NCAA teams. The other pod of teams is made up of Duke, Southern, South Florida and Southern Cal.

But on Monday, the men will play there, too. ODU will host Manhattan in an NIT game set to tip at 9 p.m. The court will be in use from noon to 6:30 p.m. Monday while the four women's teams that won on Sunday conduct their practices.


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