Cait McMahan had given her mother strands of the net from the championship game in Cleveland, Ohio, and Teresa McMahan was wearing it as a bracelet when she died.
"She wore that net all through," Earl McMahan said.
Teresa McMahan died at 3 a.m. Tuesday. She was 53.
"She fought it for a long time, and she's a great inspiration," said Earl McMahan, the father of Cait and her older brother, Reese. "She's in a better place right now and free of pain."
Earl McMahan was divorced from Teresa, but the two remained close friends and joint partners in the lives of their two children.
"She was a great woman," he said.
He said Cait was devastated by the death, and Reese, who is stoic like his father, was also struggling.
"It's her mom," Earl McMahan said through tears. "She's seen her fight this off and on for 15 years. She's having a rough time right now."
Teresa McMahan endured three battles with cancer – and went into remission while Cait was at Heritage High School in Maryville – but it returned when Cait was a senior. Teresa McMahan was able to make it to Thompson-Boling Arena to see her daughter play before she had to enter hospice care. Cait had written "Strong Like Mom" on her basketball shoes that she wore during games.
"Her mom got to see her be a part of something special," Earl McMahan said.
Teresa McMahan also played basketball in high school at the old Everett High School that eventually merged with Heritage, where Cait played and starred. Teresa McMahan had been a lifelong Lady Vol fan, and it was a dream come true for her daughter to sign at Tennessee and play for Coach Pat Summitt.
Earl McMahan called Summitt on Tuesday morning – Summitt was in Destin, Fla., for the SEC meetings – to tell her about Teresa McMahan's death.
"She was broken up about it," said Earl McMahan, who added that "Pat was real good about letting Cait come home and stay with her mom."
Freshmen basketball players usually are required to live on campus, but Cait McMahan was allowed to go home as needed throughout the season.
"This is a sad day for the McMahan and Lady Vol families," Summitt said. "Having had the opportunity to know Teresa – she had incredible faith and fight and truly was a great mother. Our thoughts go out to Cait, Reese and the McMahan family."
Earl McMahan said his daughter would rely on that faith to help her deal with her mother's death.
"That's what helps her," he said. "You do know she's in a better place."
But right now, he said, the family is struggling with "why do things have to happen to good people?"
Cait McMahan was very close to her mother, and they would come together to watch the Lady Vols practice when Cait was still in high school and rehabbing her right knee because of a torn ACL that she suffered her senior year. Cait also is very close to Earl McMahan, who would visit practice during his daughter's freshman year at Tennessee and attended her games.
Cait McMahan's right knee was injured in the preseason when she sustained a bone bruise in a pickup game last September. Cait played through pain all season because she wanted her mother to have every chance possible to see her play. The ACL is structurally sound, but the bone bruise caused an injury to her femoral condyle – the same injury that felled Candace Parker and Alex Fuller before their collegiate careers began, though not as extensive in scope – and Cait McMahan will need surgery next month. She is expected to miss the 2007-08 season and will take a redshirt year for rehabilitation.
McCammon-Ammons-Click Funeral Home, 220 W. Broadway in Maryville, is in charge of arrangements, and friends of the family may pay their respects there Wednesday. A graveside service will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at Grandview, 2304 Tuckaleechee Pike, off U.S. Highway 321.
Cards of condolences may be sent to:
Cait McMahan, c/o Lady Vol Basketball, 207 Thompson-Boling Arena, 1600 Phillip Fulmer Way, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996-4610