Former Lady Vol returns to campus

Alexis Hornbuckle left Istanbul on Wednesday morning, flew to Germany, landed stateside in Washington, D.C., and caught a connecting flight to Knoxville so that on Thursday afternoon she could be on the court at Pratt Pavilion with the current Lady Vol team. She's summoning reinforcements from the past, too.

"I'm trying to get Shannon, Bird, Nicky, everybody to come in around the same time," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "I called Candace, but she's a little bit pregnant."

Hornbuckle was referring to former teammates Shannon Bobbitt, Alberta Auguste, Nicky Anosike and Candace Parker. The five of them – all starters last season and all drafted by the WNBA the day after winning the national title in April 2008 – won back-to-back NCAA championships. Bobbitt, Hornbuckle and Anosike played overseas this winter – Hornbuckle was in Turkey as was Bobbitt, though on different teams – and Anosike was in Israel and then Poland. Auguste also had indicated she would seek work across the ocean. Parker was headed to Russia but learned she was pregnant. The baby, with husband Shelden Williams, is due in May.

When Hornbuckle learned that Parker was expecting – it was a surprise to the parents, who eloped last November – she couldn't rein in her impish sense of humor.

"I called her and I was giving her jokes," Hornbuckle said. "I was like, ‘I hope the baby's cute?' I had to mess with Candace. I think she'll be a great mother. It's instinctive as a woman so it'll come to her. I told her, her baby is going to be so big – her and Shelden, it's going to be big – it's going to come out walking. It's going to skip crawling."

Hornbuckle's primary reason for returning to Knoxville – where she can stay with a close friend who also took care of her pit bull, Ali, while Hornbuckle was overseas – was to get ready for the upcoming WNBA season and make use of the facilities at Tennessee. She called Pat Summitt as soon as she landed in Knoxville and the coach asked if she could come to the team's session on Thursday.

Despite the "16, 17-hour travel day," Hornbuckle said yes.

"I was excited to come back," Hornbuckle said.

That does not describe her mood when she learned that Tennessee had lost to Ball State, 71-55, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last Sunday.

"I was on vacation outside of Turkey, got back and my friend was like, ‘You know Tennessee lost?' " Hornbuckle said. "I'm like, ‘Stop lying. Don't tell me that.' I go to check on the Internet, I wanted to throw my computer. Seriously. I just wanted to throw it somewhere. I was just surprised. I was just upset.

"Once you're a Lady Vol you want them to do well. It doesn't matter if you're playing. You want them to do well and succeed and get the experience of going through the NCAA Tournament. I know it is disappointing for them. I was disappointed as a former Lady Vol. Talking with Nicky and Shannon and Bird, we were all disappointed.

Was Anosike ready to slay someone?

"She is," Hornbuckle said. "But I'll let her tell you personally."

It sounded similar to the reaction of former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings, who exchanged messages with Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick after the game.

"Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol, so they get upset," Summitt said. "When Holly was texting with Catchings, Catchings was very upset, off the chain."

Hornbuckle kept up with the team as best she could from Turkey.

"I checked every box score, looked at the post-game quotes, tried to catch highlights online every now and then," Hornbuckle said. "The only game I watched was the MTSU game early."

She departed from Turkey a little early – she will have a little over a month in Knoxville before reporting to training camp for the Detroit Shock – and indicated pro paychecks didn't always arrive on time overseas.

"I'm done overseas," Hornbuckle said. "Now I'm in Knoxville training to get ready for Detroit. I left early. They've got to pay you on time. It's a business. I'm glad to be back. I love the city. I love the people I met. I had Turkish food every now and then, but I stuck to more American, stuff I know my stomach can handle."

Hornbuckle mentioned several times that she was not in peak condition, but she got up and down the floor Thursday. Her plans are to get in better shape before training camp and take advantage of having Jenny Moshak and Heather Mason.

"This is the best place to work out," Hornbuckle said. "I like it here. Work with Jenny, Heather, best trainer, best strength and conditioning coach. I want to be on top of my game when I go to Detroit, and this is the place to get it done for me. I need to get in shape.

"I'll be here at least a month so I'll work out with them and work myself out. I'm out of shape. It's beneficial to me. I can learn from them."

It also could be beneficial for the current team. It didn't take long for Hornbuckle to start chattering on the court and offering tips to Angie Bjorklund when they played defense together and imparting some hard-earned wisdom to Glory Johnson.

"I didn't come in here to coach," Hornbuckle said. "I just came to work out but even while I played we would help one another. It might not have been in the nicest tone, but we had great intentions. I want them to improve. Glory has so much athleticism and so much potential, but you have to get that laziness out of her, that lackadaisical attitude. You have to get that out of her, and everybody else has to be tough and ready to play hard the whole time. They don't have that. It comes in spurts. It comes and goes."

Hornbuckle's tone was matter of fact, and it was a lesson she also had to learn. She noted this team was titled heavily towards first-year players with just Cait McMahan, whose knees robbed her of most of the season, and Alex Fuller as upperclassmen. When Hornbuckle arrived on campus she had three seniors to lean on in Loree Moore, who took her under her wing, Shyra Ely and Brittany Jackson, and two juniors in Shanna Zolman and Tye'sha Fluker.

"My freshmen year when I came in we were young, and already had five or six veterans," Hornbuckle said. "We come in thinking we know everything. We don't. And then they try to teach us, and then we're being lazy and getting frustrated.

"They don't have that older (core). They have Alex, and Cait's been here but to actually see it on the floor and watch it and come imitate it, they don't have that, so maybe next year they'll be better."

It took Hornbuckle, Anosike and Parker – the Big Three as they were known at Tennessee – two full seasons to get on the same page. They won titles in their last two seasons.

Does she think the current team can out-grow the resistance she just outlined?

"Of course!" Hornbuckle said. "Oh, my gosh, I went from A to Z in four years. Attitude and effort went from A to Z so it's possible. It's all on them, though. It's what they want, how much they want to succeed."

Hornbuckle's relationship with Summitt is one that both sides now describe as special. It didn't start out that way.

"By the time I graduated, yes," Hornbuckle said. "My freshmen year, not quite. We were bumping heads a lot. It all just made me grow up and mature. I didn't realize it then."

Hornbuckle was peppered with questions after practice – and they weren't just from the media. Summitt also wanted her impressions of the team.

"That's what I was telling Coach Summitt," Hornbuckle said. "Give me a week or two and I'll give you a better evaluation."

Hornbuckle did get matched up with freshman Shekinna Stricklen – the two are similar in body type – and it is hoped by the coaching staff that Stricklen will develop into the same type of defender that Hornbuckle was at Tennessee.

"It's heart and hustle," Hornbuckle said. "You have to want to play defense. It's not the easiest thing. It's a lot easier to go out there and put 15, 20 shots up, but to put 15 shots up and play defense, it's a lot harder and once she realizes that it will help her offensive game, I think she'll be OK."

Hornbuckle did notice Bjorklund's improvement on both sides of the ball, even in just an hour-long court session.

"Angie is doing great," Hornbuckle said. "I'm proud of her."

"Glory gave in to fatigue today," Summitt said. "She said, ‘My body is sore all over.' I said, ‘What about every other player?' "

The soreness stemmed from 10 sprints up a steep slope at Gate 10 at Neyland Stadium, which was followed by more sprints inside Pratt Pavilion. Bjorklund, a second-year player, was the first to finish the outside session.

"Angie gets it," Summitt said. "She understands what you have to put in to something to get the rewards."

The overall lack of chatter on the court was something Hornbuckle noticed immediately.

"They don't talk," Hornbuckle said. "I was telling Glory you can control your effort, your hustle, your rebounding. Those are the things you come out and give 100 percent. You may not shoot well, you may get beat a couple of times, but if you give effort, Coach won't have as much to say at the end of the day.

"I want them to be successful and little pointers like defense – I love to play defense – so I feel like I can help. Older people helped me so I just try to return the favor."

Were they receptive to it?

"Some of them," Hornbuckle said with a smile. "We'll work on it."

Former Lady Vols can get through to players in ways that coaches can't. Summitt is aware of that and wanted Hornbuckle's voice to be heard.

"I think anytime you have former players coming in, especially Lex, she wants to talk a little smack and challenge, I think you need that," Summitt said. "And just for our players to go against her, I think that raises their level of intensity. She was trying to get them to talk more. Obviously she understands how we want to do things here.

"I think it will be good for her to be around because she's very proud of what she did while she was here and the back-to-back championships and how she grew from her freshman year to her senior year, it was just unbelievable."

Before Hornbuckle could take the court she was wrapped up in hugs by the coaches, staff and former teammates. The 6'6 Kelley Cain smothered the 5'11 Hornbuckle in a hug.

Cain, a rising redshirt sophomore who played in tremendous pain this season as two screws put in place to realign her right kneecap began to shift, and Vicki Baugh, a rising junior who is coming back from ACL surgery, both did rehab exercises in lieu of taking the court and will be a big part, no pun intended, of Tennessee's post game next season. That doesn't mean Cain was exempt from being challenged by Summitt.

"To have Kelley and Vicki back will be huge," Summitt said. "Kelley Cain sitting out that first year really helped Kelley Cain (prepare for what to expect at Tennessee), and she's got to get herself in better shape to get up and down quicker, or Vicki Baugh will be getting all the layups."

Two other players who were frequent targets of Summitt's all season, freshmen forwards Amber Gray and Alyssia Brewer, both entered Pratt on Thursday with a bounce in their step, though Gray left with her arm in a sling for precaution after injuring her left shoulder and will be examined further later. Both Gray and Brewer had struggled with conditioning this season, but both completed the Gate 10 sprints within the allotted time. That drill – called "Iron Will" by Mason – was followed by the court sprints at Pratt.

"I was proud of Amber, and I was really excited for Lyssi," Summitt said. "Lyssi was really struggling (inside Pratt), and I took her aside and said, ‘You can do this, but you've got to believe. You've got to have that in your head. You've got to have the confidence. You've got to have the willpower to do it.' And I was really proud of her. She ran the fastest time she's run since she's been here."

Summitt got her team back onto the court within 48 hours of the loss to Ball State, and it touched off a mini-frenzy by programs that had read a different NCAA bylaw that specifically states teams may not practice once eliminated in the NCAA tourney. Another bylaw addresses off-season workouts that allow two hours of court time as a team and six hours of conditioning sessions and weights. That is what Tennessee opted to do until April 15, when the NCAA requires that team sessions end, and individual workouts can begin before players are dismissed for the summer.

"We had some people call Todd (Dooley) in compliance to try and figure it out," Summitt said. "Debby (Jennings) had already figured it out. Obviously we're not going to break any rules, so we just had to get what we could do, and that's what we did, and that's why we're doing what we're doing now.

"Texas is doing it. Georgia is doing it. Duke is doing it. And I don't know how many others. Those are just the people I've heard from. They called yesterday. Andy (Landers) wanted to know what the rules are. You've got to have somebody that understands the rules. He was just double-checking to make sure."

Summitt also wanted to make sure her players knew why they were already back at work.

"I think when I talked to them (Wednesday) after they had the run over at Gate 10, which was a pretty healthy challenge, the point that I wanted to make to them was this is not punishment," Summitt said. "This was an opportunity for us to go back in the gym and look at the skill work that's going to benefit us the most. And after we work with you then obviously they've got to get in the gym and get in some extra reps."

Summitt did understand why the players' response was not initially energetic. The psychological impact of what had happened – and the end of a season that was too often on the wrong side of program history – had taken its toll.

The 22 wins were the third fewest in school history, and the 11 losses tied for the most with the 1975-76 team. Tennessee was 4-8 against ranked teams and lost to three unranked teams for the first time in program history. The 41.3 percent field goal percentage was the worst in program history and even Cain shooting 61.8 percent – the third best in school history – couldn't save the team from that distinction. The team's 66.1 percent performance from the free throw line was the third worst ever and the number of made field goals, 837, was the lowest ever recorded for a season, as were the 249 steals.

The Lady Vols dropped out of the top 10 in the AP poll for the first time in 211 weeks, a streak that dated to 1985. They lost five SEC regular season games for the first time ever and received the lowest seed – five – in the NCAA tourney. The Lady Vols had never lost to a team seeded lower than fourth in the tourney. Ball State was seeded No. 12. Tennessee also had made every Sweet 16 in 27 previous tourneys but bowed out in the first round, a program first and the worst loss of Summitt's career.

"They just got beat," Summitt said Thursday. "They got embarrassed. The program was embarrassed. So they're thinking, ‘Look, what we did. We're the first team to ever lose in a first-round game.' So that's got to be hard on them.

"The first day here (Tuesday) I felt like we were real-low energy. I didn't think we had a good practice. Today I thought we had a really good practice. And I think part of it was they were down. They had just lost so obviously they're a little wounded, and maybe I didn't do a good job of just explaining. The reason why we're here is just to get better."

The players lingered longer on the sideline after Thursday's practice – after Tuesday's session they loaded their backpacks and departed with heads down for the most part – and their smiles had returned. Johnson remained on the court to work on her short game in the paint.

Hornbuckle said one thing Summitt said always stuck with her – and it wasn't criticism or praise. It was a basketball maxim.

"Big-time players make big-time play," Hornbuckle said. "So no matter what your role is on the team, if you're coming off the bench, if you're starting, if you have that opportunity that's your chance to prove if you're a big-time player or not."

Hornbuckle, the fourth pick in the WNBA draft, was a key player for the Detroit Shock last season. The Shock won the WNBA title and Hornbuckle became the first player to win NCAA and WNBA championships in the same year. But she won't arrive in Detroit expecting a roster spot. Rosters are being trimmed to 11 this season without injured reserve, where inactive players have been stashed until they were ready.

"I'm thinking that I'm working hard for my job," Hornbuckle said. "Nothing is for sure this year. I'm going to try to get better, become a better scorer for my coach and my team and do whatever they need me to do. I'm fighting for my job going into training camp. I'm going in thinking that nothing is set in stone."

Hornbuckle did develop another sporting interest while living in Detroit – hockey, specifically the Red Wings of the NHL.

"I watched it for the first time, and I was actually interested," Hornbuckle said. "The puck got me dizzy on TV, though."

Hornbuckle will be in Detroit in time for playoff hockey. In the meantime, she will work out in Knoxville to get herself ready for professional basketball. She and Summitt both think the current Lady Vol team will get better, but the question is when.

"I think they'll get it," Summitt said. "Is it going to take two years? Or are they going to get it next year? It'll be interesting."

"They're very talented," Hornbuckle said. "A lot of raw talent. Coach will get them ready. I'm not worried about that. Pat will have them right. I hope soon."

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