The record-breaking fourth theft came off an in-bounds play by Alabama on a pass that Hornbuckle anticipated and picked off. She scooted down court and found Alberta Auguste for a jumper that made the score 29-10 in Tennessee's favor.
No. 3 Tennessee (24-2, 10-1) led by 20 at halftime, 49-29, over Alabama (8-19, 1-11) and coasted to a victory behind points throughout the box score, including 34 from the Lady Vols bench.
Candace Parker led all scorers with 19 points in just 19 minutes of play and showed why she is ready to take her game to the next level. She also had six rebounds, three blocks, two assists and two steals during her short stint on the floor. She missed one dunk with a trailing player closing in and laid in a finger roll seconds later on the next open floor opportunity.
But the focus the day after Parker let it be known that she would participate in "Senior Night" activities next week was the claiming of the steals record by Hornbuckle and the surpassing of 1,000 points by Nicky Anosike.
Anosike entered the game with 999 career points and got over the milestone mark with a putback basket of a missed baseline jumper by Angie Bjorklund. Anosike finished with 12 points, two assists and two steals and her eight offensive boards were a big part of Tennessee's 43-30 margin on the glass.
All of Anosike's glass work was on the offensive end, and the Lady Vols grabbed 20 total while shooting 43.8 percent for the game.
Vicki Baugh had 12 points for Tennessee, and Alex Fuller added another 10. Sydney Smallbone had nine points – she hit three 3-pointers – and Auguste had three to account for the 34 points scored by the bench.
The bench also had 14 rebounds – Smallbone, Baugh and Auguste had four apiece and Fuller added two, both on offense. Fuller also hit two 3-pointers in a long-range weapon that the Lady Vols will rely on in the postseason.
Coach Pat Summitt lauded Shannon Bobbitt, who had five points and seven assists for the way she pushed tempo in the first half to get the game off to a fast start. Summitt then went to the bench players throughout the game – Bobbitt played 28 minutes; no other starter went beyond 24 minutes – to get them some playing time.
The game was marked by a great start, maintaining the lead for the most part by the bench, ball movement on offense – Tennessee had 21 assists for the game – and a 13-16 performance from the free throw line (81.3 percent).
One downside for Tennessee would be the turnovers with 18 in the game – 10 were in the first half and eight in the second. Summitt attributed it to over-eagerness by the bench.
"They were trying to do too much," Summitt said on her post-game show with Mickey Dearstone.
Summitt also wasn't pleased with Alabama's shooting percentage – the Crimson Tide was over 50 percent late in the second half but faded to finish 46.4 percent for the game. No opponent has shot 50 percent or better against Tennessee this season.
"We gave up too many touches in the middle of the floor," Summitt said.
Alabama was led by Tierney Jenkins with 12 points on 6-9 shooting. Dedrea Magee added nine points on 4-8 shooting, and Varisia Raffington had eight points off the bench.
"I thought that there were moments that we played really well with poise and even confidence at times," Alabama Coach Stephany Smith said. "I think a bright spot was Varisia Raffington. "I think she came in with a fearless attitude and did some positive things. She looked for some shots and some options within our offense. That was something positive to look at."
Alabama was undone by 26 turnovers. The Crimson Tide got 56 shots on goal compared to 73 for the Lady Vols, and Tennessee scored 34 points off of Alabama miscues.
The Lady Vols tallied 13 steals with five at the hands of Hornbuckle, who also had three assists to pass Kara Lawson and into fourth place in that career category with 457.
Hornbuckle was Dearstone's player of the game, and she noted how playing soccer helped translate to basketball.
"The field is so small once you move to the court," Hornbuckle said.
Summitt joked that "the biggest surprise was not that Alexis broke the steals record, it's that Bridgette Gordon held it."
Gordon was a frontline player – Summitt said that spoke to her tenacity – and Hornbuckle had to pass Nikki McCray (289), Chamique Holdsclaw (305) and Tamika Catchings (311) to get the chance to overtake Gordon.
"I admire Alexis because her game starts with her defense," Summitt said. "She's been able to impose her will on a lot of basketball games through her defense."
"I just really want the ball every chance I get," Hornbuckle said.
Playing youth soccer seems to provide an edge on the basketball court, as noted earlier this season by Summitt and Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood.
"I think that helps your court vision, because you're always thinking ahead of where you're going with the ball and seeing what's open," Summitt said. "I love to get soccer players. Look at Kara Lawson. They just see the floor. They know how to work across the floor, not just up the sidelines."
Lockwood was an assistant at Army and remembers watching David Robinson play at Navy.
"David Robinson was a great example," Lockwood said. "He was so developed with his feet because he played youth soccer. He played at angles and did things that other kids couldn't. She's tremendous. We can take a player like that for granted."
Hornbuckle is also one of the most athletic players to ever wear orange. She can throw wrap-around passes pass with one hand, yank down rebounds one-handed and walk a tightrope along the sideline to save a ball. Her body control is such that she can soar above players for the ball, come down in a crowd, maintain possession, not travel and either dribble or fire an outlet pass.
"She's got great vertical leap," Summitt said. "She's potentially the most athletic guard that we've ever had here."
Hornbuckle also plays a high-octane game from end to end – known as "Bucky Ball" – and sometimes seemingly has no regard for her well being on the hardwood.
"There's no doubt. She's a high risk player," said Lockwood, who noted that also means high reward. "That's just Lex being who she is. That's something you've got to live with."
Hornbuckle had heard the warnings to be careful since she was little.
"In AAU my dad was like, ‘You're going to hurt yourself,' " Hornbuckle said. "I just play. I try to save my body as much as possible when I'm going after a ball or in the air awkwardly. That's probably one of the reasons my knees aren't so good."
That last line was delivered with Hornbuckle's infectious laugh. Her knees are creaky, but she always finds her way into the lineup. Hornbuckle also attributes playing soccer – she started when she was 4 years old – to her ability to maintain her footing.
"Soccer helped me with that – the footwork and the balance," Hornbuckle said. "Obviously you're using your feet. You get hit and you're having to maintain your control. It grew on me as I grew older. You really can't teach that."
Her body control is almost preternatural. She can come down in small spaces by finding a landing spot while still airborne.
"Truly I'm just blessed to have that," Hornbuckle said. "It's something I've had since I was younger."
Lockwood paid Hornbuckle an incredible compliment by saying she could play the men's game at a lower level. Lockwood should know. He was the head coach at Northwood University and Saginaw Valley State University, both in Michigan.
"Having spent 12 years in Division II basketball, there would be a lot of teams that would love to have a player like Lex right now," Lockwood said. "I'm not saying if she were a guy. Right now. Because of her competitive drive and her athleticism. Her skill level has improved each year; she just does some good things.
"There are not a lot of players around like her. She's very special. She plays a physical game. She's not afraid of contact when she drives. She's got great body control. She understands the game. She plays very hard.
"Now, would I say she's going to be a star player? No. Could she contribute? Yes. Would I be nervous to put her in a game? I would have been very comfortable putting Lex in a game."
If that news were delivered to Hornbuckle she would likely just smile. Her focus now is on this season and trying to win a second national title. Dearstone noted the players got their title rings, and it took quite a while for the shipment to arrive.
"Hopefully we'll make it to the same spot and get them sooner," Hornbuckle said.
The Lady Vols have two home games remaining – this Sunday against Mississippi State (2:30 p.m.) and next Thursday against Florida (7 p.m.) on "Senior Night" to send off Parker, Anosike, Hornbuckle, Bobbitt and Auguste.
So far, 18,937 tickets have been sold for the Mississippi State game and 14,458 for Florida.
The Tennessee women's basketball team leads the country in attendance by almost 5,000 fans per game, with an average of 15,397 people attending the 13 home games this season.
For tickets to the games, contact the Tennessee ticket office at 865-656-HOOP or online at www.utladyvols.com.
Summitt told Dearstone that she wants Thompson-Boling Arena to fill up for the seniors.
"It would make them feel very special," Summitt said.