'She's going in'

McMahan makes emotional UT debut

Photo with no caption
By Stefan Cooper
Sports Editor
Blount Today

Knoxville — The cancer has spread to her spine, her hips and her legs. She’s confined to a wheelchair now.

"I’m struggling a little bit," Teresa McMahan said.

If only for a few hours Sunday, there would come a sweet reprieve.

Caitlyn Jane McMahan made her freshman debut in a Tennessee uniform in the Lady Vols 102-72 rout of Chattanooga in the season opener at Thompson-Boling Arena. Teresa, who attended the game with Cait’s father, Earl McMahan, began to tear when Tennessee coach Pat Summitt sent Cait to the scorer’s table early in the opening half.

"I was so tickled," she said. "I said, ‘Oh! She’s going in.’"

"We both kind of had misty eyes when she checked in," Earl McMahan said. "That was great."

Later in the half, McMahan cut to the basket to score the first time. When Tennessee reached 100, it was her length-of-the-court drive that rang the bell.

In her first game since a knee injury ended her senior season at Heritage a year ago, McMahan finished with a statistical line of four points, three rebounds and two assists in 23 minutes played.

All Teresa needed was that first basket.

"When she made that first layup, she turned around and pointed at me and Earl," she said.

McMahan first declared she would one day play for the Lady Vols as a 10-year-old, about the same time Teresa was first diagnosed with cancer. As Teresa battled through each remission, Cait became a brighter and brighter star on the hardwood. In only three seasons at Heritage, she’d broken all the school’s records for scoring. She entered last year’s ill-fated senior season as a high school All-American and a two-time finalist for the state’s Miss Basketball award.

Teresa’s condition began to worsen a year ago. To cope, Cait said turned to her faith.

"I just know it’s in God’s hands," she said. "That’s what gets me through."

It’s what made Sunday all the more special.

That their daughter would play was no given, Earl McMahan said. Still recovering from arthroscopic surgery last month on her repaired knee, Cait’s availability had been a game-time decision.

"We didn’t even know if she would get to play," Earl McMahan said. "There is still swelling in the knee."

The decision of whether she’ll red shirt will be made in the next five or six games, Cait said, including tonight’s contest with
UCLA.

Cait rose early Sunday.

"I was supposed to sleep in," she said. "I woke up an hour and 30 minutes before my alarm went off."

She spent the hours before the game in solitude, she said. She wondered, like her mother and father, if she would play.

"She (Summitt) walked in front of me on the bench," McMahan said. "She bent down and said, ‘Cait, we’re in power. Go get (junior Shannon) Bobbitt.’"

The walk to the scorer’s table wasn’t one filled with nerves, she said. When she was buzzed in, she was ready. The feeling, she said, was one of "I made it!"

So did McMahan’s high school coach, only not with dry eyes.

Rick Howard has earned the reputation as a tough guy during his tenure at the Lady Mountaineer helm. He’d gone to Thompson-Boling on Sunday simply to see one of his former players fulfill a lifelong dream. Then McMahan checked in.

"It was a great feeling to see her accomplish a goal she’s been working toward all her life," Howard said. "My little girl (Kala) said, ‘Daddy, are you crying?’

"I said, ‘No. I’ve just got something in my eye.’

"It was a great feeling to see her out there."

Howard said he was pleased with McMahan’s performance, especially considering how long it’s been since she last played.
"She made a couple of great drives and a couple of great passes," he said.

As to how she rated her play, the assist on one of teammate Nicky Anosike’s four field goals is the thing she’ll remember most, McMahan said. She’s disappointed in missing her five 3-pointers, but then the Tennessee training staff has forbidden McMahan from taking part in any shooting drills — other than games — until the knee is stronger.

Her daughter’s knee made for a brief, light-hearted moment in the Tennessee locker room afterward, Teresa said.

"I wish she’d hit one of her threes, but, for her first Division I college basketball game, she didn’t do too bad," she said. "I was concerned about her knee, and she doesn’t like for me to ask about her knee. Isn’t that funny?"

If Cait eventually takes a red shirt this season, he isn’t worried about her enduring the hardships of waiting another year, Earl McMahan said. She’s had to hang tough before.

"She’s not a 6-6 post who, when she walks in a room, you immediately say, ‘That girl can play,’" he said. "She’s had to prove herself every time she steps on the court."

As Cait raced up and down the floor Sunday, she couldn’t help but become a little nostalgic, Teresa said. It wasn’t Heritage High School’s all-time scoring champion she was watching. It wasn’t an All-American guard. It wasn’t a two-time finalist for Miss Basketball.

It was something more basic, something that makes it all fit.

"When I saw her out there, I just had images of her when she was little," Teresa said.

The things that really matter are the ones that endure.

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