Saturday, April 05, 2008

Parker Not Necessarily the Key to the Lady Vols

Of all the outdoor activities that Pat Summitt planned on her deck this year, swatting a raccoon was not one of them. Last month, she stepped in, set a screen for her Labrador retriever, smacked the raccoon and dislocated her shoulder, an injury that has become as contagious among the Tennessee Lady Vols as the measles.

While reaching in to steal a ball Tuesday night, forward Candace Parker also dislocated a shoulder, not once but twice. She returned and played valiantly as Tennessee (34-2) defeated Texas A&M, 53-45, to reach the Final Four.

Parker, the consensus top player in the country, has been cleared to play Sunday against Louisiana State in the national semifinals in Tampa, Fla. But she will undoubtedly experience some discomfort and restricted motion while wearing a protective sleeve on her left shoulder. More than ever, Summitt said, the Lady Vols will probably have to rely on the resourcefulness of guard Alexis Hornbuckle to retain their national title.

It was Hornbuckle who hit the game’s most critical shot — a 3-pointer from downtown Muskogee — in the final of the Oklahoma City Region to give the Lady Vols a 48-43 lead with 48.8 seconds remaining against Texas A&M after Parker nearly lost the ball in the lane. In 37 minutes, Hornbuckle accounted for 14 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals. Against L.S.U., she is likely to guard the 3-point specialist Quianna Chaney and also to try to obstruct passes inside to the Lady Tigers’ 6-foot-6 center, Sylvia Fowles.

“Alexis has got to be a big-time player for us to be the team we’ll have to be to win in Tampa,” said Summitt, who will be seeking her eighth national title.

This has been a resurgent postseason for Hornbuckle, a 5-11 senior from Charleston, W.Va., whose gangly exertion is accentuated by a headband and rubber sleeves on both knees.

In the 2007 Final Four, she shot only 6 for 24 as the Lady Vols defeated North Carolina in the semifinals and Rutgers in the championship game. Afterward, Hornbuckle received this admonition from Summitt: “We won without you playing the way you had to play. We won No. 7. We cannot win No. 8 without you playing your A game.”

So far, she has. On Sunday, in the regional semifinals against Notre Dame, Hornbuckle delivered 9 rebounds, 8 points, 4 assists and 4 steals. In the regional final, it was left to Hornbuckle and center Nicky Anosike to steady the Lady Vols as Parker missed the first nine and a half minutes of the second half while team officials scrambled to find a protective sleeve for her left shoulder. Finally, the sleeve was located on one of the team buses.

“She knows the expectations,” Summitt said of Hornbuckle. “I have reminded her — just remember, you have to be playing, you have to be a guard that’s going to defend and rebound and get paint points. She’s responded really well. Her leadership by example is key to this team. She’s one of the best all-around guards I’ve coached.”

In the first half against Texas A&M, Hornbuckle hit all four of her shots as the Lady Vols held a slender 29-27 lead, despite the fact that Parker twice dislocated her shoulder. In the second half, though, Hornbuckle missed her first five attempts as the Aggies went ahead, 40-36. The Lady Vols appeared stagnant without Parker. Despite struggling, however, Hornbuckle played bothersome defense and even moved to point guard in stretches, freeing Shannon Bobbitt to look for her 3-point shot.

“There’s no quit in Hornbuckle,” Summitt said. “She got frustrated, but I just tried to stay positive with her. No one tries harder. She’s passionate. She does the defensive dirty work. She gets on the boards. She’s a great rebounding guard.”

With under a minute remaining and Tennessee narrowly ahead by 45-43, Parker dribbled into the lane and almost lost the ball. She recovered it, and with the shot clocking ticking to zero, flicked a desperate pass to Hornbuckle, who stood nearly 25 feet from the basket. This was the part of her game she had worked on most determinedly in the off-season.

“I haven’t hit a shot that big in my career,” Hornbuckle said. She added later: “Coach told me stay positive and your next shot is good. I had to have confidence in the shot.”

The shot landed — Hornbuckle is shooting 7 for 14 from 3-point range in the N.C.A.A. tournament — and after Texas A&M hit a jumper, Hornbuckle responded with a pair of free throws, giving the Lady Vols a 50-45 cushion with 25 seconds remaining.

“Whoever has to step up the next game will step up; we know that,” Anosike said. “Alexis brings size and athleticism on the perimeter, which is definitely key for us. And she’s a great rebounding guard. She definitely has a lot of weapons we need to win, and she brings it.”

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