CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Tennessee coach Pat Summitt wanted to give Alexis Hornbuckle the chance to play before a hometown crowd.
The three-time West Virginia player of the year won four high school state championships at the Charleston Civic Center, site of Wednesday night's matchup between the top-ranked Volunteers (3-0) and No. 16 West Virginia (3-0).
Before Hornbuckle feasts on home cooking, Summitt wants to ensure the focus is on the court.
“If necessary, I will,” Summitt said Tuesday. “She may be all hyped up, there is no doubt about that. But she will put pressure on herself to play well and put the team first.
“While she'll be excited to be there, she knows we are going there to win a basketball game, even if the fans are cheering for her.”
When this game was drawn up two years ago, Summitt had Hornbuckle in mind when she decided she wanted to renew the series with West Virginia. The teams met last year in Knoxville for the first time since 1986.
Although West Virginia will have to travel two hours south on Interstate 79, WVU deputy athletic director Mike Parsons has said it's “a nice attraction for the Charleston area.”
The buildup has focused on Hornbuckle. She brought unprecedented success to the sport in West Virginia and was possibly the most highly recruited girls player from her home state. Hornbuckle was flocked for autographs throughout her career and was credited for soaring attendance at the state tournament.
“I think a lot of people are talking about this because Tennessee is number one and the fact that they have a hometown girl. You can't help but do that,” said West Virginia assistant coach Semeka Randall, who played on the Vols' 1998 national championship team.
“But we have some really great players that can make some big-time plays and be a hero for West Virginia.”
Randall pins West Virginia's hopes on its seven seniors. The Mountaineers didn't have Meg Bulger a year ago when the Vols beat West Virginia 66-51 en route to their seventh national championship.
Bulger missed all of last season and the final 13 games of the 2005-06 season with a left knee injury. She averaged nearly 20 points in her sophomore and junior seasons and has nearly 16 points and nine rebounds off the bench this season.
Summit is most concerned with center Olayinka Sanni, who leads the Mountaineers with 17 points and nine rebounds per game.
“She is a force to be reckoned with,” Summitt said. “They do a really nice job of ball movement and player movement, but they've got Bulger, and (LaQuita) Owens and (Chakhia) Cole. It is not just the inside attack that concerns me. Cole has a great mid-range game, and Bulger and Owens off the dribble are tough.”
The Mountaineers were ranked in the preseason for the first time and their previous regular-season ranking was in 1992.
Randall talks to Summitt several times each month but doesn't appear overly thrilled about the chance to see her former coach and staff.
“I guess I'm not as excited as people want me to be,” Randall said. “Business is business. I don't play this game just to come in second. I play to be a winner. This is a great time for our kids to be able to play against a very good basketball team and see where they belong.”
West Virginia is 7-31 against ranked opponents under seventh-year coach Mike Carey.