More than 300 miles from her home in Charleston, W.Va., Tennessee freshman guard Alexis Hornbuckle still feels high parental-like expectations.
In early December, head coach Pat Summitt and starting point guard Loree Moore sat down with Hornbuckle and made one thing clear: It was time for Hornbuckle to become a leader.
Moore had surgery to remove her tonsils on Dec. 10 and missed the next six games. Hornbuckle took her spot in the lineup at a time when the Lady Vols were struggling after losing to Duke and Texas. The expectations for Hornbuckle were great, but she didn’t see them as pressure.
"It was more of an understanding," Hornbuckle said. "If your parents tell you to do something, it’s not pressure. It’s an understanding. You want to do it for them. You don’t want to let them down."
In her first collegiate start, Hornbuckle didn’t disappoint. She scored 15 points - second best on the team - and grabbed eight rebounds as Tennessee defeated then-No. 15 DePaul in Knoxville.
The next game, however, could have been a trap. Tennessee traveled to Louisiana Tech to face a hostile crowd in one of women’s basketball’s oldest rivalries.
"I was a little nervous," Hornbuckle said. "I knew there was a lot in my hands to get the team set."
Although Hornbuckle grew up watching the Lady Vols and Lady Techsters play and she knew the significance of the game, she didn’t let her nerves hurt her game. She led Tennessee with 17 points and firmly established herself as the early star in Summitt’s highly-touted recruiting class.
Hornbuckle started six games while Moore was out and led Tennessee to a 5-1 record, including a win against then-No. 2 Stanford.
When Moore returned for the Connecticut game last weekend, however, Hornbuckle turned in her finest performance of her young career. She came off the bench to score a team-high 14 points and hit 4-of-5 free throws. She teamed with fellow freshman Nicky Anosike and Sa’de Wiley-Gatewood to score 11 of the last 14 points as the Lady Vols ended a six-game losing streak to the Huskies with a thrilling 68-67 win.
"You have an advantage coming off the bench," Hornbuckle said. "You have an edge over the starters because you get to see what they are doing. You can watch and learn things coming off the bench."
Hornbuckle earned SEC Player of the Week honors for her role in the Connecticut win, but Hornbuckle believes she still has a lot of improvement to make. She has to pay better attention to how the offense is run and understand how Summitt wants her to direct the passing.
In high school, Hornbuckle was so dominant that she rarely got a challenge from her West Virginia opponents. She led Capital High to two state titles before transferring to South Charleston High and winning two more.
"I am the type of person who is always looking for a challenge," Hornbuckle said. "In high school, it was a little frustrating when night in and night out, you weren’t going to play the top team until the tournament."
Hornbuckle is also the type of person who is always trying to learn more. Summitt said she has a good coaching relationship with Hornbuckle because the young guard is always trying to improve and get better.
"I have been pleased with how she has been able to communicate with her team and the coaching staff and not be afraid to rise up to the challenge when facing some tougher schools," Summitt said.
Hornbuckle constantly consults her coaches when she doesn’t understand how a play should be run or the exact philosophy of the defense. With high expectations on her, she doesn’t want to disappoint.
"I go back and say ‘I don’t understand,’" Hornbuckle said. "I need to understand exactly what you want me to do. I will ask 15 questions."
There are some questions that Hornbuckle has to keep to herself sometimes. Summitt’s high expectations for Hornbuckle are branching out to include a stronger understanding of the offense.
"I can’t ask too many questions about the offense because apparently, I should know that," Hornbuckle said with a laugh.