Hornbuckle's return takes pressure off Parker, Zolman
Shanna Zolman needs just eight treys to become Tennessee's all-time leader in made 3-pointers.
Overtaking the record might have just gotten a little easier.
With news Thursday that point guard Alexis Hornbuckle will return in time for the NCAA Tournament, Tennessee finally has something to cheer about this week. Frustrated not only by missing out on a top seed (the Lady Vols are a No. 2) but also by being placed in the bracket's toughest regional by far (Cleveland), Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols get their starting point guard back after fearing she was lost for the season when Hornbuckle suffered a broken wrist in mid-February.
Now, some of the pressure is off Zolman, who can slide back to her natural position at shooting guard. Freshman phenom Candace Parker, who can play anywhere on the court anyway, can focus more on dominating at the three and four.
More importantly, Tennessee gets its best slasher and best perimeter defender back. Hornbuckle, who averaged 10.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and a team-leading 3.9 assists before missing seven games, is also Tennessee's best passer, and her presence helps open up the floor for the Lady Vols. When Hornbuckle penetrates, the opponent has to collapse on her, which gives teammates such as Zolman more open looks.
Zolman enters the NCAA Tournament with 249 career 3-pointers, seven short of the Tennessee record of 256, set by Kara Lawson, who is now an ESPN analyst and a member of the reigning WNBA champion Sacramento Monarchs. Zolman already holds the single-season record for made 3-pointers (86), and truth be told, she didn't seem to have too hard a time from beyond the arc during Hornbuckle's absence. Zolman hit at least four 3-pointers in six of the seven games, hitting 46 percent (28-of-60) from downtown. But down the stretch, Zolman's legs will be fresher and she won't have to work as hard to create her own shot.
But the best part of Hornbuckle's return is the mental boost it could give the Lady Vols. They already know they were able to survive without her -- and, in fact, without two starting point guards, if you consider that then-starter Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood left the team in December. Tennessee proved that point by beating LSU in the SEC tournament final. Now, with Hornbuckle back, their confidence should be soaring. What can't they do? Hornbuckle's presence just changes Tennessee's whole mind-set.
Coach Pat Summitt said Hornbuckle will start "when she's ready." I think we can probably expect Hornbuckle on the court at tip-off when Tennessee opens the NCAA Tournament against Army on Sunday (ESPN2, noon ET). And even if she doesn't start, the Lady Vols still have a key player in the rotation who can come in and push tempo like no other sub in the country.Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.