Hornbuckle really the one running show for Vols
DAYTON, Ohio -- Call Alexis Hornbuckle the glue that holds Tennessee together. Call her a natural shooting guard playing point guard or a point guard with a shooting guard's mind-set. Call her flashy and cocky or smooth and confident.
Just don't call the junior anyone's sidekick.
Candace Parker is the undisputed leader on Rocky Top, but regardless of what shows up in the box score, Hornbuckle's contributions will be just as vital if Tennessee is to claim its seventh national championship in Cleveland, beginning with Sunday's showdown (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) against a North Carolina team that has already beaten the Lady Vols once this season.
On a team of players cast in supporting roles around a star, Hornbuckle is the director.
Sometime after the Lady Vols finished cutting down the nets in Dayton subsequent to beating Mississippi to earn a spot in the Final Four, Sidney Spencer dropped to the floor on the long ramp that sloped steeply down toward the locker room from the alcove where the players had just finished answering questions. The free-spirited senior forward proceeded to roll a few revolutions downward like a kid on a hill. The incline was the source of constant griping for just about everyone throughout the weekend, but you got the feeling Spencer had been waiting all weekend for a chance to act on the instinct of her inner child.
Aside from the comic relief of the moment, Spencer's roll illustrated precisely how every player in coach Pat Summitt's rotation fills a role on and off the court. Spencer keeps her teammates loose and keeps defenses stretched thin. Hornbuckle, who moments earlier had been the player to stick her head out of the locker room and converse with coaches and administrators about who she needed to round up for the press conference, runs the court and runs the show.
"She's a great leader, her intensity and how hard she plays and [her] rebounding ability," Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "I think just her presence on the floor -- I think we're very comfortable with her there."
Even in the regional final against Mississippi, when a stomach virus had her at less than 100 percent and limited her statistical contributions to five points and one rebound in 21 minutes, Hornbuckle knew she had other duties to fulfill as the Lady Vols took the Rebels out of their comfort zone both by busting their press and applying their own pressure on the defensive end.
"Without the box scores and the points and whatnot, I have a big role," Hornbuckle said. "I have to be energetic, I have to be the defensive stopper, I have to be the defensive coordinator, the defensive coach -- the out of bounds, I have to call all of that. I have to stay on top of my game."
Unlike most players who show up for duty in Knoxville, that's an attitude she possessed long before Summitt first "energetically" reminded them that it takes success on two ends of the court to win a title.
"I did view myself as a defensive stopper before I even hit college," Hornbuckle said. "That's what I learned to play before I even learned how to shoot. Handling the ball and taking care of the basketball and playing defense is how I grew up playing."
QUICKEN LOANS ARENA
That sounds a lot like the kind of résumé a coach would dream for with a point guard, but it's a definition that seemed to constrain Hornbuckle more than it fit her at times during her first two seasons.
She led the Lady Vols in assists per game both seasons (an injury that cost her seven games last season prevented her from leading the team in gross assists), playing alongside traditional shooters in Brittany Jackson and then Shanna Zolman in the backcourt. But the demands of the role seemed to stagnate her game last season. Hornbuckle shot just 41.8 percent from the floor as a sophomore and failed to improve either her rebounds or her assist-to-turnover ratio.
The injury to her wrist didn't help on either of those counts. But the demands of physically running an offense by bringing the ball up the court and initiating the offensive sets seemed to almost stifle Hornbuckle's ability to lead by example and energy, cut to the basket, rebound better than almost any guard in the country and knock down open jumpers.
Exit Zolman after her senior season and enter junior-college transfer Shannon Bobbitt. A capable ballhandler with more experience than a typical Tennessee high-school recruit, Bobbitt had the physical skills to relieve Hornbuckle from the nuts-and-bolts duties of a full-time point guard.
"I don't think we ever envisioned -- I didn't ever envision -- we'd have a 5-foot-2 point guard, because I always said that's too small," Warlick said. "But Shannon has proved me wrong, and us wrong, because [of] her quickness -- if you're that size, you've got to do something great. And she's very quick and shoots the ball well and plays hard. She's been the difference-maker, I think, from last year to this year, and it's allowed Lex [Hornbuckle] to go to her natural position at the 2-guard position and gets her on the boards a little bit more."
It turned out to be a perfect fit, with the 5-foot-11 Hornbuckle able to roam more freely and still run enough of the offense to allow Bobbitt, a terrific spot-up shooter, to get open for a team-leading 63 3-pointers.
"It's helped my game a lot," Hornbuckle said of the addition of Bobbitt. "It's opened up opportunities. It's a lot easier from a wing position to see the court more and also to get out and rebound and get out and run. When you have somebody with the speed of Shannon Bobbitt, and she's so quick getting out, all you have to do is get out and run with her and you'll be rewarded."
And in this case, the results are reflected in the stat sheet. Hornbuckle posted career-best numbers through the win against Mississippi, averaging 10.4 points on 44.5 percent shooting, including 36.3 percent shooting from behind the arc. Hornbuckle even led the team in assists again and posted a much improved 1.6 assist-to-turnover rate.
"She has all the head skills, as far as she knows when to pass, when to create, when to keep the ball -- she rarely turns the ball over," Spencer said. "She just can get through defenses as a slasher. And that was her coming in, but now she's developed an outside jump shot, a midrange game, and she's someone we can really count on."
But more important than a jump shot or an assist-to-turnover ratio, the improvement has shown up in Hornbuckle's leadership role on a team going back to the Final Four after a one-year absence.
"We're happy with this win, we're definitely happy to be moving on to a Final Four, but we want to cut down the big net," Hornbuckle said.
And even if Parker is likely to take home Most Outstanding Player honors if the Lady Vols succeed, don't be surprised if it's Hornbuckle running the show on the ladder. It's just her role.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.