Saturday, March 29, 2008

For Hornbuckle, it's words to play by

When Alexis Hornbuckle closes her eyes and bows her head to pray, she never asks about results.

"You can't pray for a win or a loss,'' the Tennessee women's basketball guard said.

She's more inclined to seek help.

"I pray every night and every day,'' Hornbuckle said. "I say, 'Lord bless me to play with the most energy that I can (have).' Luckily, I've been able to do that."

Her good fortune has been Tennessee's, which arrived in Oklahoma City on Friday in advance of the Midwest Regional semifinals.

The top-seeded Lady Vols (32-2) face No. 5 Notre Dame (25-8) at 9:30 p.m. Sunday (TV: ESPN2). The game follows No. 2 Texas A&M versus No. 3 Duke at 7.

The winners meet Tuesday for a trip to the Women's Final Four in Tampa, Fla.

Through two NCAA tournament games, Hornbuckle has been a full-service senior. She's averaging 13.5 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game while shooting 52.6 percent from the floor (10 for 19). She's more accurate on 3-pointers at 55.6 percent (5 for 9).

Those impressive numbers haven't been achieved at the expense of her trademark defense. She arguably was better on that end of the floor Tuesday against Purdue. Seven of her career single-game-high eight steals came in the first half. She almost single-handedly robbed the Boilermakers of any chance of competing.

"We need that,'' fellow senior Nicky Anosike said. "I mean it means the world to us, just to have a guard out there playing like an All-American right now. We've been looking for that all year."

So far, Hornbuckle's offensive production is a far cry from last March, when she averaged a relatively quiet 7.5 points per tournament game and shot 34.5 percent (20 for 58) from the floor. UT coach Pat Summitt has called her out on this shortfall on numerous occasions.

"It's definitely in the forefront of my mind,'' Hornbuckle said. "I didn't want to be silent offensively in the tournament like I was last year."

Summitt took a different tack as the tournament approached. Hornbuckle needed encouragement more than anything after averaging 6.7 points for the final seven games of the regular season and shooting the same 34.5 percent from the floor. She was a shadow of the scorer who averaging 12.4 points per game for the first 12 games of the season and shot 50 percent from the floor.

Hornbuckle revived her production with 30 total points and 48 percent field goal shooting in the first two games of the SEC tournament, only to finish 1 for 8 with two points in the championship game against LSU.

Summitt convened a film session with her wayward guard and re-emphasized shot selection and shooting with proper balance. Judging by Hornbuckle's attempts and her accuracy in the first two rounds, it was time well spent.

"I've been really pleased with her shot selection, just her composure offensively,'' Summitt said. "I think she took maybe one shot that was off-balance."

A squared-away Hornbuckle is more confident and better able to answer the postseason call.

"I just know coach has been talking about guard play, just asking them to show up I guess,'' Anosike said. "So, like I said, I guess she's taken that to heart. Now she's trying to give us everything she has."

Hornbuckle has heard the same talk and taken it more as incentive than as a burden.

"Coach always kind of says the team goes as I go,'' she said. "I look at that not as they're on my back, but I want to be the defensive fire.

What Hornbuckle wants to do is perhaps best summed up by what she's written on her basketball shoes. On one there's "Give me strength." On the other it's simply: "Spirit."

As directives go, they are specific and powerful. Words to pray by and play by.

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