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THREE YEARS AGO AT THIS TIME, ALEXIS Hornbuckle was a wide-eyed freshman starter on a veteran Tennessee team that had designs on reaching the Final Four. She had no idea what to expect. "I was so nervous," said Hornbuckle, adding that she could've benefited from a little direction from her more experienced teammates. Fellow senior Nicky Anosike remembers being just as lost back then. "They kinda left us in the dust," she said.
Determined not to complete the cycle with this year's underclassmen, Anosike and Hornbuckle convened an informal briefing session before the first round of the NCAA tournament at the team's hotel in West Lafayette, Ind., to take questions and allay anxieties. "I feel like it's the seniors' job to step up in the postseason and lead the team, because we've been here and we know what it takes," Anosike said.
In the Oklahoma City Regional a week later she and Hornbuckle mostly let their play do the talking in narrow victories over No. 5 Notre Dame (74-64) and No. 2 Texas A&M (53-45). Each time Tennessee sagged, coach Pat Summitt turned to her two senior leaders for a lift. When the Lady Vols fell behind the Irish by eight and trailed 22-14 with 7:47 to go in the first half, Anosike went to work. Her dominance on the boards and assertiveness on offense (four rebounds, five points and an assist) helped the Lady Vols close their deficit to 33-31 at halftime. The Irish countered in the second half by stepping up their defensive pressure on Candace Parker. That strategy backfired, however, as she went 7 for 9 from the foul line to finish with 34 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. Parker's assist on a Shannon Bobbitt three with 9:34 left opened a 16-point Lady Vols' lead. "At different junctions Nicky will just look at me and say, 'Candace, take over,' " Parker said.
Parker started out simply overwhelming against the Aggies. In the first half she single-handedly broke an 11-all tie with a 16-point scoring binge that powered the Lady Vols to a 27-21 lead with 5:19 left. But less than two minutes later she dislocated her left shoulder reaching for a steal—then dislocated it again bodying up on A&M's La Toya Micheaux. "I kinda fast-talked [athletic trainer] Jenny Moshak [into letting me reenter the game], rushed the recovery and came back in and reinjured it," said Parker, whose shoulders are prone partial dislocations.
With Parker in the locker room to start the second half and Tennessee clinging to a 29-27 lead, Anosike huddled the Lady Vols for another talk. Said Hornbuckle, "[Nicky] basically looked all four of us in the eyes and said, 'We're not going home, and the only way we're gonna do this is with defense.' "
While Anosike helped shore up that effort in the second half, Hornbuckle made the big offensive plays for Tennessee down the stretch. Her deep three-point dagger late in the shot clock staked the Lady Vols to a 48-43 lead with less than a minute to play, and her two free throws a possession later helped Tennessee ice its fifth Final Four appearance in the last seven seasons and the 18th in Summitt's career.
After the game Summitt was still leaning on Hornbuckle. As they embarked on the long walk from the locker room to the postgame interview room, she threw an arm around her senior guard and shook her head in admiration. "You just never quit," she said.
Hornbuckle flashed a smile. "I know," she said.