Is 'Bucky Ball' back?

Tennessee is a better basketball team – and Alexis Hornbuckle is a better basketball player – when the senior guard is getting steals, making deflections, hitting a big shot, setting up teammates and doing a little shimmy shake back down the floor. It's a style of play best called "Bucky Ball."

But "Bucky Ball" has been deflated of late, though it showed signs of resuscitation in the second half against Vanderbilt. So where has "Bucky Ball" been?

"I don't know," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "(Nikki) Caldwell and I – I had a meeting with her last week – we were talking about that. I guess because things haven't really been flowing that well as a team. It's not even about me personally. If I make a pass and Shannon (Bobbitt) knocks down the three ball, I get excited like I was the one that just hit the shot.

"I don't think we flowed together as a team, especially in the last week. I don't know what it is. I feed off my team a little bit. I try to let my team feed off me. It's a process. If I do something well I would expect my team to get excited and vice versa. But if we're down in the dumps because we lost our run, we lost our lead and everybody's not playing together it's kind of draining."

Tennessee struggled last week against Rutgers and LSU – and split the games – with the win over the Scarlet Knights ending in controversy over .2 seconds left on the clock and the loss to the Lady Tigers coming after the Lady Vols lost a 19-point lead on their home floor. Both games took their toll on the team, and Hornbuckle sputtered on both sides of the ball.

"I prayed about it and said, ‘Look, I don't know what I need to do, but God give me strength so I that I can give my team strength,' " Hornbuckle said. "And it just kind of carried over in the Vandy game."

Hornbuckle started out against Vanderbilt by hitting her first three-point attempt and slowly got into a groove on offense and defense. She finished with eight points, six rebounds and six steals in the 81-68 win.

"If she plays that way we're at a different level intensity-wise," Coach Pat Summitt said. "We're a better team. If you look at Candace (Parker) and Alexis and Nicky (Anosike) and Shannon they're the four veterans right now and they need to set the tempo and they need to hold people accountable.

"The way Lex played in the LSU game, real low energy. No passion for rebounding. I think she's a senior. It's her job right now to step up and be competitive and lead by example daily."

The win over Vanderbilt was timely as the Lady Vols wanted to shake off the aftereffects of the collapse against LSU and reorient the season's desired path.

"That was very important because I know if we would have lost it would have been very discouraging, and we might have been second-guessing our abilities as a team and where we're heading and our goals, if they're achievable," Hornbuckle said.

"So we definitely needed that. Obviously Vandy made a run when they hit three or four threes and cut the lead down. Teams are going to make runs, especially at away games. It's how we answer those runs. I think our team did a great job of answering the runs, whereas in the previous game a run occurred and we still continued to struggle.

"It meant a lot. It spoke volumes about this team's character so I'm proud of that."

The Lady Vols returned to practice Monday in an up-tempo session – there are only two games this week and they have some time to get in full court drills – that involved work on defense, especially the zone, and getting in a lot of shots. Two extra baskets were brought in along the sideline of the court in the arena to allow for more repetitions.

While they were practicing, the new AP poll was released, and the Lady Vols had fallen to No. 3 with UConn and North Carolina claiming the first two spots.

"I knew we would drop a spot or two," Summitt said. "That's not important right now. What's important is that we build off of our play at Vanderbilt and understand we've got to be a 40-minute team, and we've got to keep getting better every day in practice and just have a greater sense of urgency in how we play.

"I like what I saw in Nashville for the most part. We had a good workout today, but we've yet to demonstrate that we're going to be a 40-minute team every game."

Summitt watched the game tape and remained "overall pleased" with her team's performance.

"I thought we maintained the type of effort that we needed at both ends of the floor," Summitt said. "There's probably a few of our possessions I thought shot selection was not as good as it could have been. But we did a much better job of getting the ball inside, our defense picked up, we committed to playing a number of different defenses, full court press was effective as well.

"Overall I'm pleased, but this is one game. We have to wait and see if this team is serious about being a 40-minute team game in and game out."

Summitt gave props to the UT men's team for landing at No. 2 in the AP poll.

"Great!" Summitt said when told of the Vols' spot in the poll. "I can't say enough about what Bruce Pearl and his staff and the players have committed to and the work ethic, their togetherness, their defense and just how aggressive they play. It's fun to watch."

The ladies were fun for the coaching staff Monday because of their level of energy, enthusiasm and energy on the court. They talked throughout the session and encouraged each other.

"They know they have a day off so they may have been excited about the day off," Summitt said with a wry smile. "They invested a lot in practice today. As a coach, it's amazing, a coach and coaching staff, we look so forward to practice. You wonder sometimes if the players are as excited about practice as you are. And the answer is probably absolutely not.

"But when they do come with that type of focus and intensity and energy we get so much more done. If we can continue to do that then we should make great progress between now and the SEC Tournament."

The team will take off Tuesday and then return to practice Wednesday to prepare for Thursday's game in Tuscaloosa against Alabama. The Lady Vols will leave the day of the game so that some players won't miss morning classes.

Postseason is a little more than two weeks away. A reminder of last season arrived late Monday after the players had left practice – the 2007 national championship rings.

"We're excited," Summitt said. "They're great looking."

The rings will be presented to the players, but details had not yet been worked out. It could provide a late-season boost to what it is they are working for now.

"That's true," Summitt said. "I don't want them to think, ‘Well, we got one.' We need two."

The restoration of "Bucky Ball" can only help a championship cause, so Hornbuckle has to stay on course.

"After this Vandy game I don't want to take a step back," Hornbuckle said. "I want to keep moving forward. I think it's going to come back and continue to stand up. It definitely gets me going. It gives me confidence, whether it's shooting or making that extra pass, I'm not second-guessing it, whether on defense I feel like I can be in the passing lanes."

Hornbuckle has creaky knees and deals with chronic tendonitis. She tweaked her right knee Sunday and had to get sideline treatment before reentering the game. She was sick last month and then needed a diagnostic procedure. She lost a beloved grandmother in late December and spent the Christmas break in mourning.

That requires a psychological recovery – and one that is ongoing with a tribute to Lucille Stephens Hornbuckle on her basketball shoes – to accompany the physical one. Hornbuckle also is a senior finishing her psychology degree requirements in the classroom.

"I've been tired, but I don't know if it's from being sick and recovering or if it's from school," Hornbuckle said. "I feel like I don't have any time to recover. I keep telling people I need a vacation."

That remark was followed by a peal of laughter, because Hornbuckle knows that's not happening soon.

So she has taken the route of rest, proper diet and fluids, although it makes her seem wiser than her years, especially for someone in college.

"I'm old. I tell you I'm 22 going on 70," Hornbuckle said. "Trying to manage my time, getting rest and eating right, because I think that helps a lot as far as energy is concerned," Hornbuckle said. "Hydrating. Definitely been trying to do that a lot more."

Hornbuckle agreed with how Candace Parker characterized the players' meeting Friday – get it done now.

"It's now or never," Hornbuckle said. "Candace said it. Nicky said it. We don't want to leave with any regrets. I don't want to say, ‘I wish I would have done this my senior year. I wish that we could have turned it around before a loss occurred in the NCAA Tournament or what-not.' It's pretty much now or never.

"You've got to realize this is your last opportunity to be a Lady Vol so step it up."

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