Forged from the fire

Monday's basketball game features No. 1 Duke vs. No. 4 Tennessee in an emerging border rivalry between two teams expected to be in the title mix in two months. The Blue Devils have won the last two matchups against the Lady Vols, including last season in which a raucous crowd unnerved one player and the team ultimately unraveled on the road. For Alexis Hornbuckle this is her shot at redemption.

"Sometimes you have to be thrown into the fire to come out just a little bit stronger," junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle said.

Hornbuckle was scorched last season at Cameron Indoor Stadium where the student section shouted at her throughout the game because of a shoplifting charge that occurred while she was in high school in West Virginia. The taunting surprised the team – Hornbuckle had been through an entire season and a half of college basketball without the incident being mentioned – and it rattled Hornbuckle.

The students held up Wal-Mart bags – Hornbuckle had been accused of taking a towel and sunglasses from the discount store before a beach trip – and chanted throughout the game. The misdemeanor charge was adjudicated before Hornbuckle enrolled at Tennessee, and she had called coach Pat Summitt immediately after it happened to inform her of the incident and to apologize. The matter seemed to have been settled and forgotten until Tennessee played at Durham and the notorious Cameron Crazies decided to make Hornbuckle a target of derision.

Tennessee struggled from the field, with the exception of Candace Parker and Sidney Spencer, and from the free throw line. As a team Tennessee shot 2-10 from the line with Hornbuckle missing all four of her attempts. The Lady Vols went into the game ranked No. 1 and came out reeling after a 75-53 loss.

"First of all I thought that it was really unfortunate that any player was put in that position," Summitt said this week, her voice bristling at the mention of how Hornbuckle was treated. "I was very upset after that game. To me there's no place for it.

"But you can't control how fans and students react, but you can control how you handle it. And I thought Alexis – the team didn't play well; whether that was a factor or not I don't know – just tried to keep her focus. We really didn't talk about it. I was probably more upset than anyone in the gym."

Hornbuckle fielded multiple questions this week from the media about last year's game and said that essentially she wasn't ready for what happened at Cameron.

"I think if I was prepared for the type of hostility that was thrown at me and our team I think to a certain extent I might have been more prepared," Hornbuckle said. "But you can't really simulate something like that – what they're going to say, how loud they're going to be, how consistent they're going to be as far as keeping their chants up and trying to get into your head. That's basketball. Your fans are supposed to do that to get into the other team's head. Hopefully we'll get the same support here, and they'll feel it a little bit also."

Summitt and UT men's coach Bruce Pearl have been on the radio, on television and on campus generating support for the Lady Vols. But Summitt made it clear she wants no retaliation from Tennessee fans.

"No," Summitt said. "We're not going to be in the dirt digging. We're going to get ready to go play."

Hornbuckle said she had no issue at this point with Duke's fans.

"No, because honestly, if I was just a fan you're going to do what it takes to help your team win," she said. "If you're a true fan, that's what you do. I can remember watching our boys play in high school. You're writing the signs saying any and everything to get into other players' or other teams' heads. It's a part of basketball. That's what makes it fun. That's what makes it challenging."

She also doesn't bear any ill will towards the Duke program and said the best place to settle any score is on the scoreboard.

"I don't really think it's like bad blood," Hornbuckle said with a smile. "We're competitors. I'm not a Duke fan, but I don't have any … no disrespect to their team or any of their players at all. But it lit a fire under us a little bit."

The flames touched Hornbuckle's teammates as well, who also said they accepted the antics of Duke's student section to a point and felt no ire for the Duke team.

"It was intense," said Spencer, who hit 3-4 from behind the arc against the Blue Devils. "It's something that every player looks forward to playing in front of. I know Duke coming here, it's a big game for us. We're going to see where we are, if we've improved, what kind of weaknesses we still have. I'm really excited. I hope our students come out and are obnoxious as well. That's part of the game; that's what makes it fun. I don't have any grudges against Duke."

Junior center Nicky Anosike said, "I think that's a part of what they're known for. I think it's great for the game. It's a hard environment to play in, but I just want to get them back. Because that was really mean, especially for Alexis, who is one of my closest friends on the team. I think we owe them a little something."

Summitt sees a more mature player – if Hornbuckle handles Monday's game as well as she answered the media's questions about what happened, Summitt should really be happy – that absorbed that experience last season and adjusted after the UConn game this season. Against Connecticut, Hornbuckle played an uneven game – tenacious defense and sloppy offense.

The Lady Vols still got the win and Summitt got some film clips that turned out to be not just instructive but possibly season changing for Hornbuckle, whose defense has never been faulted but whose offense can be erratic.

"I think Lex has grown up a lot, but the biggest change to me came after the Connecticut game," Summitt said. "I thought in that game she was very undisciplined in her shooting, turned some good looks into bad looks at time. Now I think her offensive game she's playing on balance.

"I think she's playing her best basketball of her career right now. I'm sure last year that that (game at Duke) had to have an impact on her. More importantly this year she understands how she can really help this team. She can create shots. She's doing a good job of creating not only for herself, but for her teammates. She can get inside the paint.

"I think she's playing her best basketball of her career and this is the most pleased I've been for Alexis and in her."

Hornbuckle displayed her offensive discipline at Georgia and again against Mississippi State. She now seemingly has an offensive attack to complement her defensive effort, where she serves as the catalyst.

"Yes, she is," Summitt said emphatically. "She plays so hard on the defensive end. She had one (block) at Georgia; she came from nowhere. She's a great athlete. She's becoming a great basketball player. She relied on athleticism for two years. That will only get you so far. Now she has the combination of the athleticism and the skills."

Hornbuckle has decided to accept the treatment at Duke as a learning experience, albeit a brutal one while she was enduring it. She can now look back and find tangible ways in which it ultimately helped her. She learned how much she could affect her team if she let something affect her.

"I'm thankful for every situation that I go through, because it's going to help me," Hornbuckle said. "I might not see it right then and there but going into the summer as far as working out and coming into this season I've definitely seen myself in tight situations as far as the North Carolina game earlier this season, it wasn't going our way, but I never hung my head.

"I always try to bring our team together, because now I realize I'm a leader. I can't let them see me get down. I can let myself look defeated. Coach reminds me of that if at any time it looks like I'm about to get to that point. Because I'm human; it might happen. But I've definitely learned that more times than not I have to keep my head up, and I definitely attribute that to the Duke game last year."

Summitt might not want Tennessee's student section to verbally retaliate against any Duke players, but she does want them to pack their sections in the arena and be loud.

"Students bring energy," Summitt said. "They make a lot of noise. They're exciting. They're cheering for their peers. For (the Mississippi State) game our student section was full. It was great to see.

"It means a lot to our team to have a lot of their classmates and peers in the stands. And they do make a lot of noise. They wanted the seats out so we're taking the seats out (in the lower student section behind one goal). I thought it was a great idea. Get their face painted, hoping Bruce's chest is painted. He'll be ready."

UT men's coach Bruce Pearl was on the radio with Summitt this week and said he might paint a "T" on his chest and sit with the students. He has since backed off the paint idea but is likely to be courtside, if not with the students, then close by.

"That would be definitely exciting if that comes about," Hornbuckle said. "I'm anxious to see if that does come about, because he's a big ball of energy. He gets the crowd fired up so that would be great to play in."

Several of the men's players also attend the women's game and vice versa.

"I think it's great to have the dual support," Hornbuckle said. "We're supporting our guys, they're supporting us, and the coaches are supporting each other. I think that's great. It just promotes the family atmosphere of college sports."

Hornbuckle is also happy to have this rematch in front of her home fans.

"It's going to be a great game – having Duke in a different atmosphere," she said. "I had them at home my freshman year (a 59-57 UT loss), but I think it's going to be a little more hostile this year considering how the outcome was last year. I think our fans are going to come out expecting to see a great game."

PRACTICE REPORT: The Lady Vols got in their last session of full-court preparation Saturday and will hold a light and short workout Sunday before Monday's matchup with top-ranked Duke.

With the Tennessee men's basketball team scheduled to play South Carolina shortly after Saturday's practice ended and a gaggle of young visitors, the scene was slightly chaotic with TV crews, fans, arena workers, kids and media milling about. But the head coach liked what she got out of her players.

"I did," Pat Summitt said after the two-hour session ended Saturday afternoon. "Yesterday was probably a little bit better than today, but today was a little more chaos, and that's what the game's going to be like so I guess maybe that was more beneficial."

Sunday's practice will be structured to save her players' legs and will cover free throw shooting and in-bounds plays, along with a scouting session. Monday's game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network). Some 17,000 tickets already have been sold and with a more favorable weather forecast – that is, no snow or ice expected Monday – ticket sales are expected to get a boost.

Freshman point guard Cait McMahan, who was held out of practice Friday because of knee swelling , was able to return Saturday. Also, sophomore forward Candace Parker is steadily improving from a respiratory illness and was able to practice.

"A lot better," Summitt said of Parker's condition. "She's had a lot of congestion, was having a hard time breathing. Just listening to her cough (before Thursday's game) I thought she doesn't need to be playing."

Parker was held out of Thursday's game against Mississippi State but is good to go Monday.

"I think she's had good preparation," Summitt said when asked if she were worried about Parker's readiness. "She wanted to get back on the court the next day (Friday). She's a big game player. I worry about the games that aren't as big and whether she's going to bring that same intensity level. I don't ever worry about Candace being ready for big games. She's fired up and ready to play. The composure's there, the work ethic, the skills. She'll be ready."

Senior forward Dominique Redding also had two good days of preparation. She didn't shoot well against Mississippi State but she played 19 minutes and had four rebounds, a block and a steal. What does Summitt need from Redding against Duke in a game in which the bench will be needed because both teams like to push tempo?

"I think without a doubt her defense and her board play and for her to not get impatient offensively," Summitt said. "She's had some good possessions. She really has. Shooters are constantly searching for shots, and I think there are times she gets a little impatient. But all in all she's had some good workouts."

Summitt will have sophomore forward Alex Fuller, who has been a spark off the bench all season. Fuller, whose parents live in Charlotte, N.C., will be in town for the Duke game. They travel to a lot of home and away games, but weren't able to come last Thursday. It ended up being a momentous game for Fuller – her first career start, a stellar performance and a scary fall near the end of the game that caused her back to spasm. Fuller needed help to get off the court, and the injury initially appeared to be very serious.

Her parents, Debra and Troy Price, were back home listening by radio. It didn't take long for Debra Price to call Fuller's cell phone – "a couple of times," Fuller said with a smile – to check on her daughter and tell her that she was on the way to Knoxville.

But Fuller told her she was OK and was getting immediate treatment that evening.

"She wanted to come up here, but it wasn't necessary," Fuller said. "She didn't get any sleep that night.

"She was mainly upset because I got hurt, and she wasn't here, and she didn't get to see me start. If they're not here they're listening to it on the radio."

Fuller completed two days of practice without showing any signs of stiffness or problems from the fall so she is expected to be fine for Monday's game. That's good news for Summitt, who has come to depend on Fuller in the post – she will box out and board – and to knock down some outside shots.

Fuller has already wowed the crowd with her rifle arm on an in-bounds play. It's not the first time her softball skills were apparent in a game.

Although her in-bounds pass resembled a shortstop deep in the hole trying to throw out a speedy runner, Fuller's position on the diamond was first base. On the basketball court she can dig out passes into the post that are thrown too low, leap for high balls or shift to the side and still control the ball once she catches it.

"Playing any other sport kind of helps your coordination in basketball, but I guess softball did contribute to me being able to catch the ball wherever it's thrown because in softball you're dealing with a smaller ball and then you have a glove on," Fuller said. "It's also knowing the ball is what you want on the court so you kind of have to go get it. Just going to get the ball, being able to track down the ball wherever it is."

Fuller will welcome a full house Monday evening that will include her parents. Her younger siblings, Aliah, 10, and Alandon, 6, also are frequent game attendees, and they often wear small replica jerseys of Fuller's No. 44.

"It's always good having a game like this, having a crowd being very loud, a great team coming in here testing us to see where we are as a team," Fuller said. "So of course we like the challenge."

Fuller will come off the bench in this game in a role that Summitt has come to rely on from Fuller, who the coach calls dependable and trustworthy.

"That tells me that she's comfortable with me on the court and if she needs something to happen, she has the confidence in me to call on me to do that," Fuller said.


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