OKLAHOMA CITY — Alexis Hornbuckle couldn’t make a layup, not once but twice for Tennessee on Tuesday night.
No problem, said Lady Vols teammate Alberta Auguste.
During a subsequent timeout in a tense NCAA women’s basketball tournament struggle, she told Hornbuckle: “Don’t worry, the next shot is going to be good.”
Actually, it was great.
UT’s senior guard drilled a 24-footer with 50 seconds left, giving the Lady Vols the precious breathing room they needed to finish a 53-45 victory over Texas A&M.
“Sometimes you feel it, I didn’t even go to rebound,’’ said UT center Nicky Anosike of the shot that supplied a 48-43 advantage. “Lex is known for making those kinds of shots.”
The Midwest Regional final victory, which played out in dramatic fashion before a crowd of 9,341 at the Ford Center, punched UT’s ticket to the Women’s Final Four for the 18th time in program history. The Lady Vols will face SEC rival LSU in the national semifinals at approximately 9:30 p.m. Sunday (TV: ESPN) in Tampa, Fla.
Top-seed Tennessee (34-2) did it the hard way against second-seeded Texas A&M (29-8). First, UT star Candace Parker, who was named to the Associated Press All-America team, suffered a first-half shoulder injury. She didn’t return to stay until midway through the second half, after Auguste’s spare shoulder sleeve was found in a dirty laundry bag in the undercarriage of the VIP bus.
Without her, Tennessee went without a point for a 9:16 stretch that spanned both halves.
Hornbuckle’s second-half misses at the rim were an unlikely prelude to her heroics. Her clutch basket was more desperation than inspiration. Parker saved a possible turnover in the foul lane and shoveled the basketball out to her with the shot clock running out.
“Couldn’t make a layup, but hit a 40-footer,’’ said UT coach Pat Summitt, shaking her head and smiling.
Parker finished with a game-high 26 points. Hornbuckle scored 14.
“I don’t think we lost it; I think Tennessee won it down the stretch,’’ Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said.
Prevention swung the outcome in UT’s favor. While the Lady Vols were scoring just five second-half field goals and shooting 25 percent from the floor, they held Texas A&M to six baskets and 22.2 percent shooting. The Aggies scored just three points after Danielle Gant’s layup gave them a 42-37 lead with 6:19 left.
“If our defense doesn’t go to a different level when we were struggling offensively in the second half, we don’t go to Tampa,’’ Summitt said.
The game began as a first-rate shootout. The Lady Vols were real dead-eyes as their field-goal shooting percentage never dipped below 60 percent in the first half.
After a relatively quiet start, Parker erupted for 16 consecutive points.
Her scoring run started with a layup and featured a full repertoire of her skills. One possession, she started at the high post and then snuck around to the baseline, where Hornbuckle hit her with a pass cutting to the hoop for a layup. Later, she hit a pair of jumpers, including a pretty step-back, fall-away shot over A&M center La Toya Micheaux.
Parker also scored a rebound basket and finished her run with another layup.
A few possessions later, Parker’s shoulder saga began when she pried the ball loose from A&M’s Patrice Reado. She doubled over in pain while dribbling away and had to be escorted to the locker room by Lady Vols athletic trainer Jenny Moshak.
Parker walked back to the court a few minutes later and returned to the game, missing just 1 minute, 14 seconds of action. On UT’s bench, Moshak was receiving pats on the back along with high-fives from the student trainers.
The celebration turned out to be premature. Parker ended up hunched over in front of the bench before the half’s conclusion, her left arm dangling like a purse. Once again, she departed for the locker room.
While the medical drama was unfolding, the Lady Vols were unraveling. They committed three turnovers in the span of four possessions. An eight-point lead shrank to 29-27 at the break.
Parker did not return for the second half’s start as the search ensued for the shoulder sleeve. Although the Lady Vols couldn’t pull away with Parker they didn’t get lost without her.
“We couldn’t score for a good amount of time but we never gave up,’’ Anosike said.
When Parker returned for good with 10:39 left, the game was tied at 36.
While she was back, Parker wasn’t the same Parker. It was evident on her first jumper. Then she winced while trying to snag a lob pass. Still, she managed to score on another lob. Her two free throws with 3:44 left gave UT the lead for good at 43-42.
“I thought we were much more comfortable at that point,’’ Summitt said. “But I think our defense had a lot to do with it.”