WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Alexis Hornbuckle does steals.
She doesn’t do the math.
Not in this case anyway. Her haul in Tuesday night’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament game against Purdue was so prolific, the Tennessee senior guard couldn’t keep track of herself.
“I felt like I had three (steals),’’ she said.
She wasn’t giving herself enough steals or enough credit for the havoc she created in the first half of a Midwest Regional second-round game. She matched her career high with seven steals in the first 20 minutes alone as the Lady Vols bolted to a 20-point halftime lead and cruised to a 78-52 victory before a crowd of 5,472 at Mackey Arena.
The victory advanced Tennessee (32-2) to the Sweet 16 for the 27th consecutive time. The regional’s top seed will play No. 5 seed Notre Dame, a 79-75 overtime winner over No. 4 Oklahoma, in the regional semifinals Sunday in Oklahoma City.
UT senior star Candace Parker played her usual lead-scoring role with 24 points. But even she was paying homage to Hornbuckle’s contributions.
“Her stat line was ridiculous,’’ Parker said. “It was hustle and heart.”
Hornbuckle finished with 14 points, eight rebounds, five assists and a career-high eight steals.
“Her energy is so contagious,’’ UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. “It’s infectious. When she plays like that, it’s like she creates a reservoir that people can draw from.’’
Her teammates drew deeply in joining a defensive effort that helped create 15 first-half turnovers and held No. 9 seed Purdue (19-15) without a basket for more than eight minutes. At one point, the Boilermakers missed 11 consecutive shots.
“I told them after the game that we had 30 minutes of the best defense we played all season,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said.
Hornbuckle was gathering her booty from all points on the floor. She was covering ground like a free safety, making steals in the open court and then ranging back toward the basket to steal passes.
Hornbuckle’s final steal was arguably her most opportunistic. She sneaked around behind Purdue’s Danielle Campbell and snatched the basketball as the Boilermakers center was preparing to go up for a shot.
Instead of a Purdue basket, Hornbuckle was going the other way, setting up Parker for a transition layup.
Tennessee center Nicky Anosike speculated that Hornbuckle’s active hand in UT’s effort might have been inspired by a line of questioning during Monday’s media session.
“There was a lot of talk about how our guards would match up with their guards,’’ Anosike said. “I guess Lex took that to heart.”
Hornbuckle didn’t exactly second that notion.
“They didn’t ask me,’’ she said.
She chose to characterize her agenda in this manner: “I just wanted to be a defensive disruption.”
Along with Hornbuckle and Parker, freshman Vicki Baugh was Tennessee’s other double-figure scorer, tying her career high with 12 points in 12 playing minutes. She connected on 6 of 7 field-goal attempts before fouling out with 7:31 left.
Parker tweaked her right shoulder lunging for a steal in the first half. She lingered on the sideline, holding her arm while Purdue’s Keshia Mosley converted a layup.
Although Parker appeared to favor her right arm for a few moments thereafter, Hornbuckle said that she wasn’t worried.
“Nah, she’s a soldier,’’ Hornbuckle said of her teammate. “When she looked at the bench and waved it off, I knew she would be all right.”
Parker was wearing an ice pack afterward on the shoulder, which initially was injured during the preseason.
“It’s sore, but it’s OK,’’ she said.
The Lady Vols led by as many as 33 points in the second half before suffering a lapse that was reminiscent of the regular season.
Led by Mosley’s 14 points, Purdue cut 12 points off its deficit before Tennessee got back on track and back on course to Oklahoma City.
“That’s been an ongoing problem for us,’’ Anosike said. “We get up and then we get complacent. It’s something we need to work on.”