The senior guard has enjoyed considerable success in the Charleston Civic Center, where the game against the Mountaineers will be played instead of on the campus in Morgantown so that she could have a homecoming game in her hometown. Alexis Hornbuckle won four state championships in high school inside the Civic Center.
"I love playing there," Hornbuckle said. "I'm undefeated in the Civic Center. Every time we were there it was for the state tournament or a big regional game in high school. Every time was a big game at that point in time in my life."
Wednesday's game also qualifies as a big event for two reasons: It's another matchup against a ranked opponent, and it's Hornbuckle's homecoming, or as she accurately pointed out, a "home-going."
No. 1/1 Tennessee, 3-0, will face its first of four Big East foes this regular season in No. 16/20 West Virginia. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network; TV: West Virginia PBS; Webcast: CSTV.com All-Access package).
Hornbuckle selected West Virginia as her preferred opponent when Pat Summitt was setting up the game. The Mountaineers came to Knoxville last season – the Lady Vols won 66-51 and Candace Parker dunked – and the return trip was scheduled for this season.
"She talked about how she has a homecoming or a ‘home-going' for each player before they graduate," Hornbuckle said. "She asked me who I'd rather play, Marshall or WVU. I'm a Marshall fan. I grew up one. I still am one. I love Marshall to death, but WVU probably has the bigger competition being in the Big East and playing against a Rutgers or a Connecticut.
"I think that makes it better. I would much rather go home and play a competitive squad such as West Virginia because when you go home and you're playing against a low-ranked team or a no-ranked team not performing at the level of basketball that we're at, it kind of makes for boring basketball after awhile. I wanted it to be as exciting as possible for the fans at home."
That could fall in the category of being careful what you wish for. The Mountaineers return all five starters from last season plus they added Meg Bulger, the sharpshooter who missed a year with a knee injury.
But Hornbuckle has tried to make this trip as pleasant as possible for women's college basketball fans and for her teammates.
Her parents, Jerome and Quan Hornbuckle, made a feast for the team that was served Tuesday evening after the team arrived from Knoxville. Instead of having the players have to travel away from the hotel so soon after touch-down, Hornbuckle asked her parents to bring the food to them.
"My mother and my father are cooking Thanksgiving dinner for our team," Hornbuckle said. "We'll probably bring it to the hotel because it will make it a lot easier. We'll just be getting in. I'm thinking of our team, instead of having to go somewhere, depending on how long you want to stay, you're at the hotel, you can just go to the room whenever."
Summitt joked that Hornbuckle might be looking forward to her mother's home-cooked meal - the Hornbuckles ended up hosting the team at the church fellowship hall - as much as the game.
"She can throw down in the kitchen as we say," Hornbuckle said. "She can definitely cook."
Later Tuesday evening Summitt had the players surrender their cell phones, so they won't be disturbed after curfew. They get them back at breakfast the next day, per team policy.
"I told everybody don't call me for tickets," Hornbuckle said. "Don't blow up my phone when you know I'm there. This is the one trip that I'm actually happy we get our cell phones taken up at curfew so I don't have to deal with all the calls of last-minute ticket requests and all that so I can just focus in on the game. They take them away every away game.
"I told all my friends to buy their tickets, and I still have a list of 46 tickets."
Homecoming games can tax a player with all of the potential distractions. Hornbuckle has tried to minimize those on the front end.
"It's basketball with a home-cooked meal this trip," Hornbuckle said. "Just kind of keep it in perspective. It's not about me. It's not necessarily about me going home. It's about Tennessee trying to win another game, and West Virginia is our opponent."
During the interview inside the arena, Vol basketball player Chris Lofton was doing some extra shooting. He looked over at Hornbuckle, smiled and said, "West Virginia!" That, in a nutshell, sums up homecoming games. They are special, attract interest and can consume a player. Chamique Holdsclaw, one of the most-clutch players in Lady Vol history, struggled at Madison Square Garden and later said it felt like she was playing for the entire city of New York.
Hornbuckle is working overtime to keep it in perspective.
"Definitely excited to go home and play in front of a home crowd of family and friends who I probably haven't played in front of, the majority of them, since high school," she said. "It's not really pressure as far as you have to win. It's more of you want to go there and you want to do well and you don't want to let anyone down. To be honest the pressure all comes off because it's about Tennessee, and it's not about me."
Summitt has no doubt that Hornbuckle, an emotional player for any contest, will be hyped for this game. But she trusts her senior guard to handle the hoopla.
"I expect her to focus and do what she has to do in that game – that's just play the way she's been playing," Summitt said. "Her defensive intensity has been terrific. She shot the ball well (Sunday), and she's got to continue to bring the energy to our team.
"I think Lex knows what she has to do. I think she has the focus. That's her one opportunity to go back home and play. I trust her and I believe she will be ready to play."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said the staff's strategy is not to call even more attention to the situation.
"We have not made a big deal of it," Lockwood said. "We don't want to make a big deal. We really trust our seniors. This coaching staff has a lot of faith in those kids. Lex has been as good as any player we've had in terms of her leadership, her consistency of effort, her output of energy. She's handled her business.
"We talk about one of Pat's Definite Dozen (from her book ‘Reach for the Summit'). Discipline yourself so that others don't have to. Lex has done as good a job of disciplining herself as a player as anyone this year in terms of how she's conducted business. We have no reason to believe otherwise that she's not going to be able to do the same thing there.
"I think if anything Pat may mention to her some time during this trip, ‘Hey, just do what you do for this team. I know where it is, and that's exciting, and it's great but don't forget you're so important to this team and do what you do. You just bring so much to this team, not only the numbers you give us, but more so in the leadership, the energy levels.' "
During Summitt's weekly teleconference with the media Tuesday, she said she would address the topic with Hornbuckle if matters warranted such.
"If necessary I will," Summitt said. "She may be all hyped up, there is no doubt about that, but she will put pressure on herself to play well and put the team first. This West Virginia game will be a tough one for us. This team has balance and size. I watched our game from last year; they have a toughness about them. They are very disciplined and well coached. While she'll be excited to be there, she knows we are going there to win a basketball game, even if the fans are cheering for her."
The Civic Center holds 12,500. After Summitt fielded questions from the media for about 20 minutes Tuesday she turned the tables and asked if anyone knew about advance ticket sales, as there were several writers in the teleconference from West Virginia. It was believed some 6,000 to 8,000 tickets had already been sold.
"That's great," Summitt said.
Nearly 60 media credentials have been issued for the game – an unheard of number for any regular season game, even the colossal Tennessee-Connecticut matchups – so the interest level for the return of Hornbuckle is obviously very high.
"She's quite popular," Summitt said. "I was there for the state tournament. She's quite popular between her personality and her style of play. The people up there loved her. They (her high school) had a great following. Alexis was obviously the best player on the floor."
"She has a lot of flare in her game," Summitt added. "We all know that, and there is no telling what she'll do when she gets home."
The trip to Charleston will be the first for Summitt since she recruited Hornbuckle in high school. When Summitt made a home visit she went to church with the Hornbuckle family. Jerome Hornbuckle is a reverend.
"He preached that day, and Quan sang," Summitt said.
Summitt has been singing Hornbuckle's praises for years.
"I respect her for what she brings to our team, her intensity and that competitive drive," Summitt said. "She hates to lose. She is one of the players who will give you everything she's got to help win."
Hornbuckle can calculate her maturation from freshman to senior year in her level of patience.
"I've grown and matured since the summer of 2004 to the fall of 2007," Hornbuckle said. "I think my patience has grown tremendously. I used to be a very impatient player. Not necessarily an impatient person. I have a lot of patience off the court. But on the court I always wanted to be doing it right and if I mess up I immediately wanted to get it right.
"But now I realize it takes time whether it's correcting my shot, getting a play down, correcting whatever coach might ask me to do. Instead of expecting a result right then and there I realized that I have to work towards that. It's not just going to be given to me."
Hornbuckle wants to put together a complete stat line for her senior season. She can be counted on to rebound, set up her teammates and take the ball away from the opponent. Her scoring has been sporadic.
Summitt wants Hornbuckle to use her slashing ability to get to the paint and either finish the drive to the rim, shoot a short jumper or find a wide-open teammate on the perimeter.
"I know that's one of my biggest strengths as far as getting to the basket or shooting a pull-up jumper," Hornbuckle said. "So when you ask what do I want to get better in, obviously my main focus comes from jump-shooting and behind the arc.
"I still want to become a more consistent scorer. I feel like I don't look for my shot as much, but honestly that's just because I love passing the ball. I love sharing the basketball and getting my teammates involved.
That approach has Hornbuckle moving up in the record books. With eight more assists she will pass Holdsclaw (385 assists) and move into 10th place all-time. Hornbuckle is 55 steals away from the all-time spot at Tennessee, how held by Bridgette Gordon with 333.
Against Texas she had five steals and seven deflections, "so there are 12 defensive times where she touched the ball where we got possession or potentially we could have had possession. That's huge," Lockwood said.
To be so closely aligned with Lady Vol legends Holdsclaw and Gordon in the record books is significant.
"It's a honor," Hornbuckle said. "You never really thought about it growing up as a kid that you're going to be competing for records that All-Americans and Olympians hold. I'm just trying to find a way to elevate my game to a new level and be on the same platform as them."
As far as offensively, Hornbuckle is only nine points away from 1,000 for her career. The last member to enter the club was Sidney Spencer, who finished her Tennessee career with 1,088 points.
"It took forever, but yeah!" Hornbuckle said with a smile.
Hornbuckle was the WBCA 2004 High School Player of the Year and the MVP of the WBCA All-America Game. Parade, McDonald's and Street & Smith all named her a First Team All-American. She also excelled in soccer and was the state high jump champ in 2002. The adjustment from high school to college was substantial, even for a player of her considerable skill.
"As an All-American you can play at any type of venue and excel," Hornbuckle said. "But when you come here there's so much to learn. It's a whole new program. The game is faster. The girls are bigger and stronger. It's definitely a lot more physical on the court, even as a guard. You didn't really see that too much in high school, unless you were a post player.
"My mindset was, ‘OK, you can play. You know what you're capable of, and you want to give so much.' But, yet, you've got to realize you have to take a step back and learn first."
"We'll definitely talk to them about keeping that comfort zone that they have playing here in Knoxville as they do when they hit the road," Hornbuckle said. "I know the Oklahoma game was a tough game to play in terms of it was a late game. You have all day. It's a little bit different as far as time schedule goes. It was their first big away game so I'm sure the nerves were going.
"But at one point in time in the game I remember telling Sydney, ‘It's a basketball game. It's practice with some refs and some fans. So just relax and play the game.' "
That's some good advice. Given the trappings of Wednesday's game Hornbuckle could be well served by repeating it to herself.
PROJECTED STARTERS: Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (12.0 points per game, 4.3 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (8.7 ppg, 5.7 rebounds per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard, No. 5 (8.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'4 junior forward, No. 3 (24.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (6.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg).
One of Tennessee's key subs is 6'3 junior forward Alex Fuller. She is averaging 9.3 ppg and 2.7 rpg.
West Virginia Coach Mike Carey is expected to start: Ashley Powell, 5'6 junior guard, No. 23 (1.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.3 apg); Sparkle Davis 5'9 junior guard, No. 2 (6.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg); LaQuita Owens, 5'9 senior guard, No. 1 (9.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg); Chakhia Cole, 5'10 senior forward, No. 22 (15.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.0 apg); and Olayinka Sanni, 6'2 senior center, No. 45 (17.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg).
One of West Virginia's key subs is 6'0 senior guard Meg Bulger. She is averaging 15.7 ppg and 9.0 rpg. Bulger, who is the sister of NFL quarterback Marc Bulger, has scored a career 1,332 points for the Mountaineers.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-West Virginia game. Here is his assessment.
When West Virginia has the ball: "They are inside-oriented. Sanni, I have so much respect for that player. To me she's a blue-collar player. She's a hardhat and lunch pail kid. She works and she works. If she doesn't get the ball she doesn't get frustrated. She works, and everything goes through her. She attacks the offensive boards like a beast. They're going to find a way to try to get her some touches so we've got to take that away.
"That includes pressure on the perimeter but speaking of the perimeter they've got Owens who's playing very good basketball right now and Bulger, who's really a pure shooter, and she can really make shots. Those three kids are a primary focus for us. And then Davis, even though she's isn't untracked right now, she's struggling a little bit more than normal, she's a kid who can get off on you and get going if you let her.
"For us we expect to see a lot of four-out, one-in motion. They operate out of one-four high and box sets. They're going to try to run things to get inside touches or bring shooters off of staggers. After that they're going to do a lot of stuff off the bounce or inside touches.
"They'll run, but they're not like Texas in the sense Texas wants a track meet for 40 minutes. West Virginia will run more sets. They will run more half-court offense against you. They're not afraid to run, and they're opportunistic in their run. They'll run and push when the advantage is there. They're averaging 78 or so a game but they're not looking to just every time they touch the ball go flying up and down. If they've got numbers or an opportunity they'll go. If not they're going to try to run something. When you've got a post player you want some touches and in order to get touches for a post player you've got to do it in the half-court offense more often than not."
When Tennessee has the ball: "Make a laminated card and number one is inside presence. You might as well laminate this in our scouting report because we are all idiots if we think we shouldn't be getting the ball inside some. But I think also we want to get some transition points on them. We don't want to just constantly play against their half-court defense so we want to run the ball a little bit and try to create some transition opportunities. Both in transition and in the half-court we've got to get inside touches. We've got to create paint points. Those two things go together. Those are the things you can laminate on our scouting reports.
"Also we want to do a little bit better job with our offensive rebounding. We think this is a team that can have a degree of success off the offensive boards. We want to generate some points off of that. We've got to keep improving that and one of the ways, hopefully, you can get people motivated to do that is to realize that points come directly from that. If you work to get more offensive rebounds that usually translates into scoring.
"That's one area we tell players it's OK to be a little selfish. Go get rebounds and stick backs. You can get as many of those as you want to get."
FAMILIAR FACES: The Lady Vols have seen a lot of former players and assistants of late.
When Texas came to town last Sunday, former Tennessee assistant Mickie DeMoss was on the bench with Head Coach Gail Goestenkors.
Former Lady Vol Semeka Randall is now an assistant at West Virginia. She was an assistant for McCallie at Michigan State last season. McCallie took over at Duke after Goestenkors went to Texas.
Randall was a starter on the 1998 national title team and scored 1,915 points in her Tennessee career.
"Semeka was a great part of our success while she was here," Pat Summitt said. "We had the three Meeks (Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall) and that was one of the best teams ever to play at Tennessee and the only team to go undefeated (39-0).
"I would say Semeka was very committed to playing hard-nose defense. She is physical, aggressive and tough-minded. I'm proud of her now that she is in the coaching role because she can connect with the student-athletes and hopefully be a good role model there. She knows the game, and she can be the example on and off the court. I think she is excited about this opportunity and I am excited for her."
It took Randall a while to get on the same page with Summitt during her playing days – much as it did with Summitt and Alexis Hornbuckle, another headstrong guard – but the two enjoy a warm relationship now.
"I talked to her a few days ago," Summitt said. "She keeps in touch. She is one of those players who appreciates her experiences and the relationships she developed while she was here. It means a lot to me that she stays in touch."
INJURY UPDATE: Freshman center Kelley Cain remains out of practice because of a knee injury suffered in practice two weeks ago. She is continuing rehab with the goal of getting her back to practice and then evaluating how her knee responds. She has yet to play in the regular season.
"Jenny Moshak was encouraged after practice (Monday)," Pat Summitt said. "She said she was moving better and felt better and that we just have to wait and see. We travel today (Tuesday) so hopefully we won't get any swelling and hopefully she'll get back in practice soon."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with West Virginia, 5-0. … Tennessee is 7-0 in games played on Nov. 21 and 1-0 on neutral courts. The NCAA considers Wednesday's contest a neutral site since the Mountaineers are playing away from home. … Lady Vol senior guard/forward Alberta Auguste was nearly a Mountaineer. She signed with West Virginia out of high school in Marrero, La., but then went to Central Florida Community College before signing to play with Tennessee in the spring of 2006. … Tennessee's Candace Parker and West Virginia's Georgeann Wells are forever linked. Parker has now dunked six times in college, but Wells, who played for the Mountaineers from 1983 through 1986, was the first women's basketball player to dunk in a collegiate game when she slammed against Charleston on Dec. 21, 1984. Parker dunked in Knoxville against West Virginia on Dec. 20, 2006. … Wednesday's game is the first of four games against Big East teams. The others are at DePaul (Jan. 2), at Notre Dame (Jan. 5) and Rutgers at home (Feb. 11). … Tennessee has taken on 11 of the 16 teams in the Big East and has a 71-19 (.789) record. Three teams account for the 19 wins in Connecticut, Rutgers and Cincinnati. … This is the first time in the Tennessee-West Virginia series that both teams are ranked. The series was originally started to give Lady Vol All-American Mary Ostrowski (1980-1984), who hailed from Parkersburg, an opportunity to play in her home state. The series was renewed last season to get a home game for Alexis Hornbuckle. She scored 18 points and had five boards, three assists and three steals in last year's game against West Virginia in Knoxville. … West Virginia has played the number one ranked team nine times from 1991 to 2003 (Connecticut, Notre Dame, Virginia and Penn State) and is 0-9 in those games. AP has the Mountaineers ranked No. 16. … West Virginia is averaging 45 rebounds a game compared to 29 for its opponents. Tennessee is averaging 35.3 boards per game with opponents grabbing 38.0. Those are not satisfactory numbers for Pat Summitt. "We are getting better on the boards, but we are still far from being the type of rebounding team that I would expect us to be with our size," she said.