Hornbuckle poised to seize steals record

Alexis Hornbuckle is closing in on a hallowed record at Tennessee – especially playing for a coach that cares so much about defense – as she is now just four steals away from being the Lady Vol career leader in takeaways. It's a record Hornbuckle very much wants to hold.

"That's the only record I care about," Alexis Hornbuckle said of individual honors. "You ask me about any of other stat, I don't know. I got three more to tie. I've got four games (in the regular season). I think I would be an embarrassment to myself if I could not complete four steals before the completion of the season."

Hornbuckle has 330 career steals. Bridgette Gordon, who played for Tennessee from 1985 to 1989, has 333. Hornbuckle had 64 steals as a freshman, 91 as a sophomore, 114 as a junior and 61 so far as a senior.

"It's real big to me," Hornbuckle said. "It would be a mile marker for my defensive career. I pride myself on defense and hustle plays so to be able to accomplish something like that would mean a lot."

Hornbuckle gets her next chance to close in, tie or take the record tonight when No. 3 Tennessee (23-2, 9-1) takes on Alabama (8-18, 1-10) at 7 p.m. Eastern (TV: CSS; Lady Vol Radio Network) at Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa.

The Lady Vols have just four games remaining in the regular season – at Alabama, Mississippi State, Florida and at Georgia – before postseason begins.

"Every game is important right now, regardless of who we play, it's just important," Coach Pat Summitt said. "It's more about us right now and how we play. Are we playing the scoreboard? Are we getting bored? What are we doing? I think that's where we have to have accountability."

Hornbuckle has honed her defensive skills during her time at Tennessee by working in the off-season with Heather Mason, the Lady Vols strength and conditioning coach. She attributes her proficiency at taking the ball from an opponent to being willing to take chances and to work.

"Just being gutsy and I work a lot with Heather Mason every chance I get in the off-season and preseason on hand speed and quickness," Hornbuckle said. "There's a reaction drill where I'm standing in a defensive stance and she's holding two tennis balls, one in each hand, and she'll drop it. And either I have to catch it going forward or I have to just hit it or I have to catch it backhanded. It's a little bit of everything because if you're in denial, you're swiping backhand; if you're coming forward for a steal it's reaction drills to everything."

When Summitt recruited Hornbuckle out of South Charleston High School in West Virginia, she saw a player who wanted to defend.

"I thought coming out of high school that she had a passion for defense," Summitt said. "She's got great anticipation. She's not having to play on the ball all the time either, so playing off the ball has helped her. She's good on the ball, but she's been great off the ball."

Hornbuckle also had speed – foot and hand – though she maintains that she's fast but not quick.

"If you think about quick, think about it like track," Hornbuckle said. "You're quick off the blocks. You'd be a 100, 200-meter sprinter. But if you're fast you can more so run a 400. Just because you can excel in the 400 doesn't mean that you're going to win a 100-meter race.

Hornbuckle used Shannon Bobbitt, who is quick, as an example.

"Shannon is quicker than I am so if it's a shorter distance she's going to get there first," Hornbuckle said. "If you run a full court sprint I'm probably going to have a better chance of beating her at that."

Because you're faster?

"I won't say I'm faster," Hornbuckle said. "I'm just saying I'm fast. I'm not going to say I'm faster than Shannon, and she comes out here and smokes me."

Steals would seem to come more readily out of a man-to-man defense, but Hornbuckle picked up four – and six total – against Vanderbilt while Tennessee was in a zone. A player looking to make steals must make adjustments.

"It makes it a little bit harder because you have to be in position," Hornbuckle said. "In the man-to-man principles you can kind of cheat, you can take little shortcuts more often than in a zone, because in a zone the minute you turn your head the wrong way you have a cutter coming behind you.

"So you just have to be more conscientious about where your player is, the distance. I try to use my length to my advantage in a zone."

Tennessee has been mixing in zone looks with its man to man – none more so than last Sunday against Vanderbilt – as both a change of pace and by necessity to disrupt a team that is efficient in the half court.

"I think our zone looks were really good to us in Nashville against Vanderbilt, and we've been able to at times with the changeup – it may be more the change than the actual defense – but I think we've been able to be successful when we have had some changes in our defense," Summitt said.

Tennessee deployed both 2-3 and 3-2 versions of its matchup zone, and used its considerable size – Nicky Anosike can play on the top of the zone – to its advantage. Summitt also had the 6'4 Vicki Baugh, the 6'5 Candace Parker and the 6'3 Alex Fuller operating in the zone together.

"We went with our matchup, the alignment's a 2-3, and then we went to a 3-2 later in the game and put Nicky on top," Summitt said. "I thought that size at that time was really very effective. We got some good possessions out of it. I liked for the most part what we saw. I think we have to get our freshmen where they understand."

The next step is getting those freshmen – Baugh, Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone – up to speed on matchup principles, which require more shifts and identification of cutters and screeners than a standard zone.

"Angie was struggling about who she was responsible for picking up and a lot of times she was ball watching and unaware of a shooter in the corner," Summitt said. "We're going to watch tape. She just needs to be very attuned and looking around and identifying ball and her player."

Smallbone is a solid offensive player who arrived at Tennessee with little defensive background. She didn't play against Vandy because of all of the zone alignments that Tennessee ended up using.

"I told her after the game I want to get her some minutes," Summitt said. "We know offensively she can knock down shots. Her lack of awareness on the defensive end has really hurt her in terms of getting minutes playing time-wise. I think she's learning a lot.

"She came in (Monday) and had a great practice. Syd is going to get all of this down eventually, and it's unfortunate that she didn't come in with a depth of knowledge on the defensive aspect of it. She hadn't really played in a 3-2. (Monday) was really good for her. She got a lot of reps in in both of our zone defenses."

With just four regular season games left Summitt is short on time but still wants to get the bench some solid minutes down the stretch. Fuller had 14 points against Vandy in a performance off the pine that turned the game, especially with Parker and Anosike in foul trouble.

"Alex obviously came in and gave us a great lift, just her ability to knock down open shots," Summitt said. "We know that Alex has a great touch and she can shoot on the face-up, she can score with her back to the basket. We've got to get her in more face-up opportunities just because she can stretch the defense with the three ball. She had a great day for us at Vanderbilt, and that was a big difference for us."

Over the last two weeks of February Summitt wants to see consistent execution on both ends of the floor and a decrease in turnovers.

"We've got to be consistent in what we're doing, and we've got to take care of the basketball," Summitt said. "We turn the ball over too much. We get careless at times. Maybe we take too many risks. That's all part of playing the tempo we play.

"We're going to be aggressive at both ends of the floor and unfortunately I think we've been a little too careless with the basketball so hopefully we can shore up our execution by not turning the ball over."

Fuller laced up her shoes before practice this week while finishing up a media interview. Her knee and wrist had scars and her arms were an assortment of bruises. It's the time of the season when players are wearing down and seeking a second wind.

"We're about to end the regular season and getting into postseason and SEC Tournament so we've just got to push through it," Fuller said.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (9.9 points per game, 3.2 rebounds per game, 3.4 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (10.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2.5 steals per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard, No. 5 (10.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.4 apg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (20.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.6 apg, 2.4 spg, 2.2 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior forward, No. 55 (9.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.8 spg).

Alabama Coach Stephany Smith is expected to start: Dedrea Magee, 5'7 sophomore guard, No. 2 (8.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.2 apg), is 14-35 (40 percent) in SEC games from behind the arc, her first career start was last season against Tennessee, was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Mississippi; Katie Hancock, 5'11 freshman guard, No. 31 (5.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg), made collegiate debut Jan. 27 against Auburn after coming back from ACL surgery, is the sister of the late Josh Hancock, who pitched for Auburn and the St. Louis Cardinals; he died last summer in a car wreck; Camilla Blands, 5'11 junior guard, No. 5 (7.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg), averaging 9.0 ppg in conference play and has hit 25 three-pointers this season, can also play the point, hails from Denmark; Tierney Jenkins 6'0 freshman forward, No. 21 (11.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg), leading scorer, has hit double figures in 17 games, played at Wilson Central High School in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., and won the 2006 Class AAA state title as a junior; and Courtney Strauthers, 6'4 sophomore center, No. 22 (5.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg), had career-high 12 points against Auburn and career-high eight boards against St. Mary's.

Key players off the bench for the Crimson Tide are Talisha Chandler, who has started 17 games this season, and Caitlin Hollifield, who hails from Powell High School in Knoxville, and has started 14 games.

Chandler, a 6'2 sophomore forward, averages 6.3 ppg and 7.3 rpg and has been playing 25.9 minutes per game. She had 18 rebounds against Belmont this season. Hollifield, a 6'1 freshman forward, averages 5.1 ppg and 4.8 rpg and has been playing 25.5 minutes per game. Smith has 10 underclassmen on the roster, including five freshmen.

A key player off the bench for Tennessee is Alex Fuller, a redshirt junior forward who responded well after a players' meeting last week to discuss the LSU loss. Summitt had challenged the bench to perform better, and Fuller took the words to heart.

"I was thinking about the freshmen and how they were seeing me and how they were kind of looking at me as a role model and a leader," Fuller said. "I was thinking how I could help this team this year because I know that we all want to win a national championship.

"Try to lead more, let people hear me on the floor and come off the bench and give a lift to the team. I always want to go in the game and rebound and be an offensive threat because that's one of my strengths being able to score."

Fuller was 6-8 from the field against Vandy and hit 2-3 from behind the arc. She was under instructions from Summitt to be aggressive with the ball in her hands.

"I know sometimes I hesitate on my shots, and I try to think in the back of my mind, ‘Look for your shot. Look for your shot,' " Fuller said.

The loss to LSU on Tennessee's home floor – which followed the controversial clock game against Rutgers – took a lot out of the Lady Vols over the span of four days, and they had to regroup on and off the court.

"It was good to see how we would react to adversity because we did lose so badly, so it was good," Fuller said. "We kind of came together as a team and just had to forget about that loss. We couldn't change the past, we knew that, so we had to forget about it and go to the next game thinking we're going to get better, and we're going to show all of our fans and everybody else who watches us how we can react to something like that."

Fuller is the poster player for resilience. She has been called on to start this season once in place of Parker. She sometimes plays inside and other times outside. She might play a substantial portion of the game or limited minutes. Through it all she perseveres.

"Take every game at it is," Fuller said. "Don't try to overanalyze anything. Just take it as it is no matter if I get two minutes or 20 minutes."

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Alabama game. Here is his assessment.

When Alabama has the ball: "They're probably make liars out of me and they'll make their first five threes, but they've not shot the ball great lately so they're more of a dribble drive team and a post-up team. They'll do a lot of iso (isolation) stuff with their posts and they'll attack one on one and then their perimeters are also very good off the dribble and they try to attack that way.

"We've just got to protect the paint. We can't let them get into the paint easily. We can't let them get second shots. We don't want to get in early foul trouble; they're getting about 17 free throws a game. We've got to make them take tough, contested jump shots."

The Crimson Tide doesn't want a track meet with the Lady Vols.

"They'll run selectively," Lockwood said. "They're going to run off turnovers or if they have an advantage. They're not a high-octane team all the time."

Lockwood expects to see mostly man defense from Alabama.

"They've played a majority of man," he said. "I've not seen them play a lot of zone this season, but they have played zone in the past so I'd be shocked if we didn't see maybe some zone.

"I think they're going to double our posts. They're going to random trap on the floor. They do trap guards and try to trap sometimes even the first pass receiver. We're going to just have to be smart with the ball. They are forcing 19 turnovers a game so we can't be in that ballpark."

When Tennessee has the ball: "Inside, inside, inside. We also want to be able to execute and get things out of our sets and get things out of what we do. We really feel if we execute early and move the ball and don't hold the ball that we can get some scores out of our sets."

The Crimson Tide has a 1-10 record in conference play, so the coaches can't oversell the game, but they also noted that Tennessee can't overlook anyone, especially at this point in the season when teams are winding down the regular season and prone to lose focus. For the Lady Vols it's all about maintaining focus.

"You keep your preparation as consistent and similar as you have all the way through the season," Lockwood said. "You don't want to get too high or too low. We were honest with them. Is this LSU? Or is this Georgia or Vanderbilt? No.

"But is this team capable? They're an SEC team who are still very capable. They're playing at home. This is not a team that is just going to roll over for you by any stretch of the imagination. You've got to put this in players' hands and have enough trust to say, ‘Look, you've got to understand, while it may not be a top tier conference team, it still potentially has a trap and a pitfall in it if we're not careful. So we've got to go in with the same mental frame of mind."

ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action tonight in the following matchups: Vanderbilt at Arkansas; Auburn at Ole Miss; Kentucky at LSU; and Mississippi State at South Carolina. Georgia and Florida are idle.

THE FUTURE: Five of Tennessee's six signees from the class of 2008 were selected as McDonald's All-Americans and four were picked as WBCA All-Americans. Those honored are: Alyssia Brewer, Sapulpa, Okla., WBCA and McDonald's; Amber Gray, West Chester, Ohio, McDonald's and WBCA; Glory Johnson, Knoxville, Tenn.. WBCA and McDonald's; Alicia Manning, Woodstock, Ga., McDonald's; Shekinna Stricklen, Morrilton, Ark., WBCA and McDonald's.

The McDonald's All-American game will be played March 26 in Milwaukee. The WBCA game is played April 5 in Tampa, site of the Final Four.

"I am very pleased with the success they are having with their senior seasons," Pat Summitt said. "They are playing well. There is a lot of talent there individually. Hopefully when they come together, collectively, they will commit to playing together and bringing their strengths and skills to the court.

"I thought when we closed out that class it was going to be a special group. Right now they are getting the recognition, and next year they'll have to step up and play a lot of minutes for us, but I am proud for all of them."

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Alabama, 39-2. The Lady Vols are 17-0 in Knoxville, 14-0 in Alabama and 8-2 at neutral sites. The Crimson Tide's last win came March 3, 1984, in the SEC Tournament. Since then the Lady Vols have won 32 straight, including a game two weeks later in 1984 in the NCAA tourney to start the streak. … Tennessee is 8-2 in games played on February 21. The two losses were to Virginia State, 39-18, in 1925; and to LSU, 72-69, in 1999. The last win on this date was against Ole Miss, 86-69, in 2002. … Senior center Nicky Anosike is one point away from 1,000 for her career. ... If the Lady Vols win tonight, it would be the 10th SEC victory of the season. Tennessee has tallied double-digit SEC victories 14 times. Since 1991-92, when SEC play expanded, the Lady Vols have won at least 10 games every year except 1996 and 1997: 1992-10 wins; 1993-11; 1994-11; 1995-11; 1998-14; 1999-13; 2000-13; 2001-14; 2002-13; 2003-14; 2004-14; 2005-13; 2006-11; and 2007-14. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee averages 78.9 points a game while allowing 61.0. Alabama averages 54.5 points while allowing 63.2. The Lady Vols shoot 45.9 percent overall, 38.2 percent behind the arc and 72.3 percent from the line. The Crimson Tide shoots 38.3 percent overall, 28.1 behind the arc and 61.6 percent from the line. Tennessee averages 40.4 rebounds per game with opponents grabbing 36.3 for a +4.1 margin. Alabama averages 39.1 boards with opponents getting 35.3 for a +3.7 margin. The Lady Vols average 16.4 assists and 17.3 turnovers while forcing 21.4 turnovers. The Crimson Tide averages 11.2 assists and 26.3 turnovers while forcing 19.9. Tennessee averages 12.2 swipes and 6.1 swats. Alabama averages 9.3 steals and 4.0 blocks.

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