'Give me strength'

Alexis Hornbuckle need only look down at her shoes when she needs a reminder of how she plays this game and why it matters so much to her. The player who has been lauded by Pat Summitt for her leadership and willingness to take young players under her wing is seeking strength for herself right now.

On the right shoe are the words, "Give me strength" and on the left shoe are the words "RIP Grandmama 12-22-07" in a poignant tribute to the memory of Alexis Hornbuckle's paternal grandmother, Lucille Stephens Hornbuckle.

"I was really close to her," Alexis said. "She passed away before we even played Stanford, but they didn't tell me until after the game. The first game back was DePaul, the first game I played knowing she was not with me.

"The whole game I just kept saying, ‘Give me strength,' and it was like she gave me strength. It's basically on my mind and when I feel down and out or when things are not going right, I just look down and get motivation and inspiration from that."

Hornbuckle flew home from California for the Christmas break to mourn the loss with her extended family. A funeral service was held in West Virginia and then she returned to practice at Tennessee the day before her grandmother was buried in her home state of Alabama on Dec. 29. That decision to rejoin the team came after Hornbuckle talked with her father, the Rev. Jerome Hornbuckle.

"My father basically just said she would love for you to keep doing what you're doing, and that's the type of person my grandmother was," Alexis said. "She never wanted anybody to be behind because of her even when she was on her deathbed. Always encouraging words and that's what I try to do: Come back, be positive and channel my energy into something I love doing."

It has been a daily process to try to balance basketball with personal grief.

"I'm just trying to make it day to day," Alexis said. "There's no real way to say I'm OK. I'm not OK. Just dedicate the rest of my season to her and just try to play it out from there. We were very close."

Hornbuckle has performed in exemplary fashion on the court this season. She also has willingly taken the role of team leader, especially when it comes to helping the freshmen guards, Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone. At a practice this week, Hornbuckle took Smallbone aside during a drill and quietly and patiently pointed out what she needed to do.

Hornbuckle remembers how she felt as a freshman – she wanted someone to tell her, not yell at her.

"Just tell me instead of yelling at me because when you're yelling at me, I've got you yelling at me and two coaches yelling in my other ear," Hornbuckle said. "You don't really respond as well, so just try to talk to her. Angie responds better to talking rather than yelling."

Coach Pat Summitt welcomes the input from her senior.

"Lex has been terrific, very coachable, almost like a coach to the freshmen," Summitt said. "She's constantly helping them."

Hornbuckle knows a quiet word here and there can have a big effect on the court. The freshmen will get playing time this season so Hornbuckle wants that process to be as smooth as possible so that the entire team benefits.

"I think it's very important that no matter what five players we have on the court, no matter if they're veterans, freshmen, we've got to all be on the same page," Hornbuckle said. "So it's important that they understand that so instead of yelling at them and always being in the heat of the moment, sometimes you have to break it down and walk them through it. I feel like they respond better if you just talk them through it, so that's what I was trying to do with Syd.

"They come from different backgrounds. Some people can handle yelling; some people can't. So you have to find that middle ground, not necessarily babying them but what's most effective for them."

Hornbuckle's individual performance is the best of her career on the offensive end this season. Her defense, hustle and board play have been staples of her game since she was a freshman, but her offensive package is stellar now, as evidenced by her 50.8 percent shooting percentage overall (63-124) and long-range marksmanship of 54.5 percent (18-33).

"Shot selection, playing on balance and just realizing what's a good shot and what's not a good shot," Hornbuckle said of the differences from last year.

She still creates off the dribble, but even that part of her game is played with a higher degree of control and purpose once she leaves her feet.

"I'd rather be squared up, my shoulders square, my feet as square as possible," said Hornbuckle, who also cited increased confidence as key. "Just working continuously on my jump shot over the summer."

Hornbuckle's offensive production has developed into a pattern this season. She is averaging 12.2 points per game to go with 5.5 rebounds per game and 4.0 assists per game.

"She's been very consistent of late," Summitt said. "I'm really pleased because I think she can make a big difference because she can create off the dribble for her teammates, as well as herself. Her shot selection, her offensive package is much tighter this year than it has ever been.

"There was a time where she never saw a shot she didn't particularly didn't like. She liked them all. I think she's much more efficient, and her ball security is a lot better as well. I think that's because of our team and the makeup of our team. We're a little bit more offensive-minded and skill-wise we're better."

Last year's team still holds the edge in practice habits. That group came in, got to work, got it done and left. This year's team is certainly no slouch – they rarely have to be reminded to not lose focus even in a three-hour session – but last year's squad set the standard and ultimately earned Summitt's trust.

"They're getting better," Summitt said. "I just have to raise the bar and demand more and our coaches have to."

Hornbuckle initially wasn't sure what the difference was, but then she noted the need to integrate three newcomers into the system in Smallbone, Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh. Last year, it was essentially only freshman guard Cait McMahan, and she grew up in nearby Maryville and was long familiar with the program.

"I think it might be trying to get the freshmen on the same page as the returnees because they have so much information to learn whereas last year we just really had Cait and she's been watching the game, she had a lot of film with coach and when you're only dealing with one person it's easy to say, ‘OK, Cait, watch this,' " Hornbuckle said.

"Whereas you've got Syd watching the two wings and she might have to play a little point so she's got to know that position, Angie has to know the wings, Vicki on defense has to know the top and the back. It's just a lot of information thrown at them."

McMahan, a sophomore guard who is taking a redshirt year because of knee surgery last summer, increases the intensity level of practice just by being on the floor. She ran the point with the male practice team Tuesday and defended well, made some pinpoint passes and nailed a three-pointer.

"She's working hard," Summitt said. "I was glad she could get out there today."

McMahan also led both sides in floor burns and sheer hustle. A loose ball basically belonged to her. Despite being out of practice most of the season she readily threw herself into the mix and onto the court.

"That's Crazy Cait," Hornbuckle said. "She has energy all the time. She doesn't know what it means to take it easy. You have to respect that. You know exactly what you're getting every time she steps on the court."

The same can be said of Hornbuckle.

Hornbuckle has been recognized with conference honors but the All-American awards are numbers-driven, and she fell short in terms of points scored leading into this season. But the coaching staff knows her worth and would not trade her for another guard in the country.

"We're not cutting down nets without her," Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell said. "She's not the leading scorer; she's not the leading rebounder. But she does all the other intangibles that aren't in the stat sheet. She's the kid that has the juice, if you will. She gives us the juice. She can make us go. She can dial it up."

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