Cait McMahan wows crowd in debut

Cait McMahan used to cry herself to sleep because she had to give up playing basketball, but the smile on her face Tuesday showed how far she had come from those dark nights as she electrified a larger-than-usual crowd at Catholic High School during her one-game appearance in the Women's Pilot Rocky Top League.

Cait McMahan led Team Adidas to the 65-52 win over Team Hustle and into a guaranteed spot in the summer league's championship game later this week. Alyssia Brewer had pleaded with McMahan to play and fill in for its missing point guard, Taylor Mills, who had to enroll in classes at Kennesaw State but will be back Thursday.

McMahan agreed to the one-game stint and showed the fans in attendance what could have been had the 5'4 point guard's knees been able to stay intact in college. McMahan scored 19 points on an assortment of drives to the basket that included a double-pump layup; a steal and then double-pump reverse layup high off the glass; and a drive, ball fake and fingertip back-handed layup.

McMahan also dished no-look passes after penetrating to find spot-up shooters and played tight-enough defense to get the win. Her right knee held up, but she said it would be aggravated and sore in the morning.

Brewer, who scored seven points, and McMahan got to be teammates for the first time since McMahan had played sparingly in the 2008-09 season before having to quit by midseason under doctors' recommendations or risk debilitating damage to both knees that would compromise her long-term mobility.

The Lady Vols went 22-11 that season and lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney. Tuesday's game should have left no doubt that the season would have been different had McMahan been able to play.

"Cait is a difference maker," said Tennessee junior center Kelley Cain, who is not playing in the league because she's had a history of knee issues and concussions but has watched several games from the stands and has offered some spirited commentary and friendly smack talk.

"She brings a lot of heart and hard work to the team. The total package like she has would have definitely made a difference."

That heart was on display Tuesday as fans filed early and often into the gymnasium to see a hometown product – McMahan played at Heritage High School in nearby Blount County – take the floor again.

Before the game, McMahan acknowledged she was nervous and uncertain about how she would perform.

"Am I nervous? Yeah, a little bit, because I know most people saw me play when I was Cait, and I'm not Cait anymore," McMahan said. "I don't who I am basketball-wise. I am just going to have fun and do what I can."

She certainly looked like the McMahan of old as she got to the rim at will and still showed flashes of her speed, a trademark of her high school game. Her former high school coach, Rick Howard, was in attendance, as were her father, Earl McMahan, and brother, Reese McMahan.

"They were yelling at me so I went over there and told them to shut up," McMahan said with a teasing smile. "It was really fun. It was a great experience, I am so glad to have this, it was an amazing time, and I thank everybody for coming out and watching me."

Earl McMahan froze every time his daughter left her feet on the way to the rim, but the knee, secured with a brace, held up. Before the game, the two talked.

"I was like, ‘I am just going to take it easy,' " McMahan said. "My dad was like, ‘Cait, you don't know how to take it easy.' I was like, ‘You're right.' So, I am just going to play. I am going to play hard. I am not going to disrespect the game and not play hard. Whatever happens happens knee-wise, score-wise. I am just going to be the point guard I always try to be."

McMahan scored a game-high 19 points and distributed the ball to her teammates as Team Adidas shot out to a 16-0 lead over Team Hustle, which also entered the evening with a 3-1 record. The lead was 33-17 at halftime, but Earl McMahan could tell that his daughter was getting tired.

Team Hustle got the lead to single digits, but McMahan took short breathers on the bench and found some reserves in the tank, aided by the enthusiasm of the crowd whenever she took the court.

"I could hear it," McMahan said. "They kind of influenced by energy. My knee felt great. It didn't go out or anything."

McMahan expected to need some tender care Wednesday for the knee – because of family commitments the rest of the week McMahan won't play again – but she declared the evening to be well worth the trip.

"It felt really good," McMahan said. "I was nervous like crazy. Lyssi can tell you. We rode together, but she had me calming down and I had a lot of confidence. I had a great team, so that helped a lot."

Afterwards, McMahan acknowledged that she surprised herself with that performance.

"I really did. Honestly, I really did," McMahan said. "I didn't know if I could keep up. I looked up at the score, and I didn't want to lose this game."

Cain, who spent a year in knee rehab with McMahan off the court during the 2007-08 season, said it didn't surprise her at all.

"That's Cait's game," Cain said. "I am just happy I got to see it. It's definitely nice to see her back on the floor. I wish she could still be playing with us, because I love playing with Cait."

Sydney Smallbone and Glory Johnson weren't having a lot of fun to start the game as Team Adidas got out to the huge lead, but Team Hustle stormed back in the second half when Johnson started defending the ball on the perimeter, and Smallbone started hitting threes.

"I was upset we were losing so bad in the first half," Smallbone said. "It started with our defense. We were getting little stops."

Smallbone connected on four 3-pointers in the second half – each brought raucous cheers from her teammates in the stands and shouts to shoot more – and tallied 16 points for Team Hustle.

"We're pretty close, so we support each other," Smallbone said. "We definitely play hard. It's been nice to get in a rhythm. When I was open my coach gave me the green light so I was letting it fly."

Johnson chipped in 11 points for Team Hustle.

Smallbone played against McMahan but was just happy to see her on a basketball court again.

"Cait plays with so much heart," Smallbone said. "Every time she takes the floor she's going to give it everything she's got. She kicked butt today. She was feeling it. She didn't miss a beat.

"It was good to see her. It's cool to have a reunion."

Brewer added, "I told her you know you want to play with me again, I want to play with you one more time. We don't know when we're going to do this again. I knew she missed the game.

"I am glad I was the one that got to enjoy having her on my team."

It wasn't that long ago that McMahan had to get away from the basketball court. She finished the 2008-09 season as a student assistant and was offered the chance by Coach Pat Summitt to return to the role the following season. But McMahan had suffered two profound losses – the death of her mother, Teresa McMahan, from cancer in 2007 and then the ending of her hoops career in 2008.

A painful wound like that sometimes has to be excised completely before it can start to heal, so McMahan opted to walk away from the game and the daily reminders of her loss and become a regular college student.

"That was one of the best and hardest decisions I've ever made," said McMahan, who added the tough part was not seeing the players and staff. "I had to live a totally different life. My life was my mom and basketball and then that was out. It got taken away.

"If I had been healthy (the 2008-09 season) probably would've been (different) just because I was a leader and it killed me (not to play). I know in my heart and they know in my heart if I could have played I would.

"I cried myself to sleep at night, but three doctors told me it's not going to get any better. I tried everything. I did everything I could. I think the way the season went was good for them because they came back last year. And they didn't lose anybody so watch out for the next season."

Several current Lady Vols opted to play this summer if schedule and health permitted, and all of those who have participated have praised the formation of the Women's Pilot Rocky Top League.

"I am glad they started it," said Shekinna Stricklen, who scored 13 points in Smith & Hammaker's 60-45 win over the News Sentinel on Tuesday. "It's fun playing against my teammates and other girls from around Tennessee and getting to know each other. It's been great and it helps each other get in shape."

The league also has featured more defense than might be expected in the summer and definitely more than its male counterpart at Bearden High School.

"A lot more," Stricklen said. "I went to the boys' game the other night and half of them really don't play defense until the last two minutes of the game if the game is close. I feel like we've been playing defense the entire game, (though) there may be some times we take possessions off, but I feel like we play a lot more than the boys do."

Former Lady Vol Courtney McDaniel added nine points for Smith & Hammaker while former Lady Vol Dominique Redding had nine for the News Sentinel and Kamiko Williams added six points.

In the final game of the evening DeRoyal downed Duncan Automotive, 78-70, behind 34 points from Angie Bjorklund, who shared Strata-G MVP honors with Smallbone. Bjorklund hit from way outside – she did a jab step and crossover that left her defender leaning the wrong way – and from inside after a hesitation move and crossover that left her defender on the floor.

When Duncan Automotive had the ball, Bjorklund often had to defend Faith Dupree in the paint. Dupree also hit a three-pointer and tallied 22 points. Once again, she got pounded during the game, getting knocked to the floor once by Bjorklund one game after taking a Johnson elbow to the throat that left her unable to talk for two days.

Bjorklund, who will play again Thursday, has come away from the league with an appreciation for the area talent. She has even invited a DeRoyal teammate, Tacarra Hayes, to join the Lady Vols for pickup games this summer.

They were short of players recently because of homework obligations and some of the regular guys being out of town, so Bjorklund called Hayes, not realizing she was in Cookeville, Tenn., where Hayes will be a junior this fall for Tennessee Tech. Hayes agreed to come next time with a little more advance notice to make the drive to Knoxville.

"That's what pickup is all about is getting some great players," Bjorklund said. "I was excited to see I was surrounded by such great players."

Tuesday evening's games set the playoff standings in the league with Team Adidas, 4-1, finishing in the 1A spot and the News Sentinel, 1-4, finishing in the 6A slot. Those two teams will play at 6 p.m. Thursday.

Smith & Hammaker, 3-2, took the 2A slot and will play Duncan Automotive, 1-4, in the 5A slot at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Team Hustle, 3-2, claimed the 3A slot and will play DeRoyal, 3-2, the 4A finisher, at 9 p.m. Thursday.

On Friday, the News Sentinel will play Duncan at 6 p.m. followed by Team Hustle vs. DeRoyal and then Team Adidas will take on Smith & Hammaker for the league championship.

Adidas' win Tuesday with McMahan at the helm assured the team of the spot in the title game against Smith & Hammaker.

McMahan's presence was a reminder of what could have been during that difficult 2008-09 season.

"That year we struggled with finding each other's position because everybody had to go out of their comfort zone to fill the spots on the floor," Brewer said. "She would have been the X factor that year."

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