Alexis Hornbuckle returns to practice

Tennessee guard Alexis Hornbuckle returned to practice Thursday after missing the previous day's session because of a concussion. She showed no ill effects from the shots to the head she took in the win over George Washington and declared herself good to go this weekend in regional play in the NCAA tourney in Cleveland.

The Lady Vols practiced Wednesday and Thursday in Knoxville after advancing to the Sweet 16 for the 25th time in school history – as long as the women's NCAA Tournament has been held – and will take off today to travel to Cleveland, Ohio, for regional play. Tennessee, 30-4, will take on Rutgers, 27-4, at noon Sunday (ESPN, Lady Vol Radio Network) at Quicken Loans Arena. The second semifinal features North Carolina and Purdue. The winners will meet Tuesday evening for a berth in Boston for the Final Four.

Sophomore Alexis Hornbuckle took at least two shots to the head in the 66-53 win over the Colonials in Norfolk, Va., and missed Wednesday's practice. On Thursday she was zipping up and down the court as if nothing were wrong. The concussion, like her now-repaired broken right wrist, seemed like an afterthought.

"I'm feeling great," Hornbuckle said after Thursday's practice. "It's just more taking extra caution as far as being out yesterday and making sure all the symptoms of the concussion were gone. I woke up this morning and felt like I was going to be all right."

Hornbuckle missed five weeks this season to recover from a broken wrist. She returned to action in Norfolk but has to wear protection – essentially two splints and thick tape – in order to play. The device has taken some getting used to.

"In the beginning, yes. Today's practice, it felt good; it felt normal," Hornbuckle said. "I don't have a complete follow-through, but other than that it felt like a normal shot. It's just a confidence thing. It's more a mental thing. I think it's just a matter of getting comfortable in doing everything."

She laughed about the shot she took to the nose – a George Washington defender whacked her in the face – that caused her to crumble to the floor and to have to briefly leave the game.

"I was just trying to get on TV," she said laughing.

The second shot to the head was more bothersome. Hornbuckle hit the back of her head on the floor while trying to draw a charge. She sort of staggered down the floor on the next play but shook it off.

"Definitely when I hit the floor I think it was from that," Hornbuckle said of her concussion. "I wasn't dizzy from getting hitting in the nose, and then I hit the floor again. If it's not one thing, it's another. That's what coach walked up to me and said (Wednesday). When I go as hard as I do I don't expect to come out there without any minor injuries. I'm just blessed that I really haven't had a serious injury to just put me out longer than what I have been. It's going to happen. It's a part of the game, especially the way I play. You don't know what's going to happen.

"I've been dealing with that since I was little because I would be playing with guys. We played football, tackle in the street. So injuries are nothing to me now. Play through it. If you're not about to die, you don't need to be hospitalized. Suck it up and walk it off. Get out and keep playing."

When Hornbuckle played tackle football on the streets of Duncan, W.Va., she was a wide receiver.

"I was sick, too," said Hornbuckle, which means she was really good. "I was like Randy Moss out there."

Her coach, Pat Summitt, sometimes finds herself having a sick feeling on the sidelines when she watches her only true point guard hit the floor, but she's not about to ask her to change her style of play.

"I think it's contributed to a lot of contact," Summitt said. "Sometimes she plays with reckless abandon, but the positive thing of that is how much energy she brings defensively to us and her ability to push tempo. She's fearless. She'll attack the basket in traffic. She's not afraid of contact. It's not like she's got a big, big body to go in with the bigs; she just goes.

"Occasionally I get a little overanxious, but that's her game. Within the game and how she plays she manages so many times to stay on balance when she's going in. I think her footwork's good. It's not like she goes in there out of control. There are times defensively she'll take herself and dive on the floor for a loose ball but I think offensively, while she's aggressive, she has pretty good body control in traffic."

The return of Hornbuckle couldn't have come at a better time for Tennessee. The Lady Vols' next opponent has strong guard play in Cappie Pondexter, the Big East Player of the Year, and Matee Ajavon, last year's conference freshman of the year and a member of this year's All-Big East First Team.

Hornbuckle's return in sub-regional play had its rusty moments after five weeks away from game action, but it allowed her to work out some kinks before the Sweet 16.

During a teleconference Thursday with the media, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer was asked if she thought the concussion would slow down Hornbuckle. Stringer said that the guard could have a concussion and broken wrist, fingers and toes, and the only way she might think Hornbuckle would be slowed down was if she were hospitalized and having surgery in West Virginia on the day of the game.

The more adversity Hornbuckle faces, "the better she's going to respond," Stringer said. "She's just resilient. There's a certain mentality there."

Hornbuckle laughed when the remarks were relayed to her and said it does reflect how she plays.

"It definitely does," Hornbuckle said. "It takes a lot to sit me out. It was just like in the Vandy game when I first had my injury. I didn't even want to sit out then and it was like the most painful thing to play through. To me I just always want to be on the court. That's just the type of competitor I am."

Summitt made it clear she is happy to have Hornbuckle. She will stick with her same big lineup – "They're tall; they're extremely tall," Stringer said – but Hornbuckle will be a big factor off the bench.

"I think if you look at Alexis' presence on the floor, it's one that brings us energy defensively," Summitt said. "She can be a real sparkplug for us. She can disrupt other team's sets. It's to our advantage to have her on the court."

When Hornbuckle broke her wrist pursuing a loose ball in the Feb. 12 game against Vanderbilt, it was believed she would be lost for the season.

"There could be a movie written about the great players at Tennessee that never give up," Stringer said.

Stringer added that her team applauded the dunks by Tennessee's Candace Parker in the NCAA tourney and had no need to respond with any jocularity about her not doing it against the Scarlet Knights.

"That's not an issue," said Stringer, who added her players were mature enough to be impressed. "We're just trying to win a game. I think that's great."

Both coaches wish this game were being played in a Final Four and not regional play. The Cleveland bracket has the feel of a Final Four with the ACC regular season and tourney champs; the Big East regular season champs; the SEC tourney champs; and the Big Ten tournament runner-up.

Summitt and Stringer are close friends and have spoken frequently throughout this season.

"We'll talk just in general about who she's got next, and we'll talk about our teams occasionally, like if she's seen us play or I've seen them play," Summitt said. "When I lost my dad (this past October), she was great. She called me, she sent flowers, she sent a fruit basket. She really reached out at a time that meant an awful lot to me."

When they're not competing against each other they're likely to be shopping together.

"I went with her to a mall. We were in Norfolk. We were at an AAU thing, and I took her to the mall," Summitt said. "She is the slowest shopper in America, and I am the fastest so that combo was a little challenging. We move at a different pace. … This woman can shop for hours. She'll look and look, and I see and get or see and walk away."

On Sunday the coaches will put aside their friendship and try to win a basketball game.

"We've had great preparation," Summitt said of her team. "I think this team is very focused. We obviously are excited to be going to the Sweet 16 – gives us a chance to play a Rutgers team that we have tremendous respect for. Every year it's a difficult road to a Final Four, and it's no different this year, but I like the mental and physical preparation that we've had the last two days."


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