The Tennessee womens basketball team gathered in freshman Cait McMahans room last Monday night to catch the NCAA mens championship game.
When the Georgia Dome public address announcer introduced Florida senior Lee Humphrey to the crowd and a national television audience, McMahan, whose Lady Vols would meet Rutgers in the womens championship game the following night, was ready and waiting.
"Hes from Maryville, you know," the former Heritage High School star told her Lady Vol teammates.
Florida knocked off top-ranked Ohio State, 84-75, to claim the schools second consecutive basketball crown later that evening in Atlanta. A day later in Cleveland, McMahan made it two straight for Blount County, with Tennessee holding off Rutgers, 59-46, in the womens championship game for Lady Vol coach Pat Summitts seventh title.
The forthcoming championship ring will be especially sweet for McMahan. A Parade All-American her senior year at Heritage, the former All-State guard saw an AAU national crown slip from her fingers as a freshman, her team falling in the national final. With Heritage ranked 13th nationally by USA Today her sophomore season, the two-time Miss Basketball finalist injured her knee in the regular season finale and missed the postseason.
The following year, with a deep team around McMahan, the Lady Mountaineers were a prohibitive favorite for a state tournament run, only to see their star injure the same knee four games into the season and be lost for the year.
McMahan scored a school-record 2,315 points, averaging 22.9 points per game, in less than three full seasons at Heritage, but not being able to complete a championship run bothered his daughter, Earl McMahan said.
"She said, Dad, Ive never won a championship," he said.
After cutting her strand from the championship net during postgame festivities, McMahan quickly tucked it away for safe keeping. It would find its way to McMahans mother, Teresa, whos battling cancer, when the freshly-minted national champion got home.
"She had the part of the net she cut down, and she put it on my arm like it was a bracelet," Teresa McMahan said. "She said, I didnt know someone could be so happy.
"It was awesome just to think the first year shes there, the thing shes always dreamed about happened."
Teresa, confined to a bed by the cancer that has severely weakened her bones, watched the championship game with Caits father, Earl McMahan.
"We had a great seat," he said. "It was a tremendous moment. With all she (Cait) has gone through, it was just good to see her happy."
Teresa was first diagnosed with cancer while Cait was still in middle school. The pair grew especially close as Teresa battled one relaspe after another. Things took a turn for the worse McMahans senior year at Heritage.
"I have my breakdowns," Cait said. "I have my good days and my bad days. I just try to stay strong."
McMahans first season at Tennessee also saw problems with her
surgically-repaired surface. Any drill work after practice,
including shooting, was prohibited. After the games, the knee would swell and have to be drained.
"If we had a really hard practice, I would be up at night," McMahan said. "I couldnt do any extra stuff, and thats what killed me. I didnt have confidence in my game."
McMahan averaged 2.4 points per game her first season at Tennessee. The knee will likely require another offseason surgery, she said. Still, this years championship season was a memorable one.
McMahan grew especially close to Tennessee sophomore sensation Candace Parker during her first season in Knoxville. The prominent role Parker played in Tennessees title run was one McMahan was familiar with from her days at Heritage. A unique kinship developed as a consequence.
"Shes always got my back," McMahan said. "When I get in trouble, I always go to (junior) Alexis (Hornbuckle) or Candace to find out what I should say to Pat."
One such occasion didnt afford any time for consultation.
"We were running a play in practice, and I was supposed to set a screen on Alexis," McMahan said. "I didnt set the screen.
"She (Summitt) stopped practice. She said, Wow! Alexis, are you hurt? Because Cait just nailed you on that screen."
The former Lady Mountaineer even poked fun at the Mercedes Roadsters that Tennessee assistant coaches were given to drive for the next year. The sleek, luxury automobiles were delivered during a reception for the team upon its return to Knoxville.
"What about those cars the coaches got?" McMahan said. "We got a T-shirt and a ring."
McMahan didnt appear in the championship game, but it did nothing to dampen the satisfaction of watching his former charge claim the team award she had so long coveted, Heritage coach Rick Howard said.
"I texted her and I told her I was so proud of her," he said. "Even though she didnt get to play, she helped them get there. If somebody ever deserved a championship, it was her. She could have sat over there (on the bench) and pouted, but she didnt."
"Im happy for her mom. Im happy for her dad. They were cheated out of those championships when she was in high school."
Humphrey, Howard said, was just as deserving a champion, although watching the former Maryville High School great claim his second consecutive ring came with some personal discomfort. A native of Ohio, Howard is a devoted, often passionate, fan of the Buckeyes.
"Hes really represented this community and his family tremendously," Howard said. "Hes a class young man. Im an Ohio State Buckeye, through and through, but I couldnt help but feel good about how he was doing."
In four seasons at Florida, Humphrey rewrote the record books for 3-point accuracy.
Finishing 4-of-7 from deep a couple of times, really deep in the championship game, the former Tennessee Mr. Basketball was a combined 18-of-35 from the arc in Floridas two Final Four trips. En route, the former Rebel passed former Duke guard Bobby Hurley for the NCAA tournament record for career 3-pointers, Humphrey taking possession of the all-time mark at 47.
The three-time Blount County player of the Year was the Gators leading scorer in their two Final Four visits, finishing with a team-leading 15.5 point scoring average. In scoring better than 1,000 points during his stay in Gainesville, Humphrey left as the schools all-time leader in 3-pointers made.
During the tournament run to this years title, the Gator sharpshooter swished a 3-pointer with so sweet a backspin it snapped the netting, forcing a stoppage in play while a new one was found.
Humphrey has been diligent at his craft since high school, former classmate Kevin Sherrod said.
"After football games, Lee would be in the gym," he said, "shooting. Hed be in there until 2 a.m. sometimes."
It produced a shooter like few hes ever coached, former Rebel skipper Rodney Nelson said. Coupled with a player who let the game come to him like few others, it was lethal.
Humphrey averaged 10.3 points per game his senior season as a Gator, attempting only 7.6 shots per contest. Only junior center Joakim Noah, 12.0 points, took fewer shots, 7.2 among Floridas five starters.
"Ultimately, I think Lees key was patience," Nelson said. "He could go a half without taking a shot, but he was always ready to shoot. His shot selection was very good. I thought he took high quality shots, even with people on him."
Humphrey proved so proficient from the arc, the Gators drilled continuously on ways to find him.
"When they got a loose ball, they would look for Lee," Nelson said. "Thats just their teamwork."
Two championship rings, 1,000 points, school records, theres little Humphrey left unaccomplished in his four seasons at Florida. In the classroom, hes the reigning Southeastern Conference Scholar Athlete of the Year as well as an academic All-American. Through it all, hes remained the same kid they sent off to college four years ago, Tony Humphrey, Lees dad, said.
"I can remember thinking back to when he was younger, watching those Final Four games together," Tony Humphrey said. "We never dreamed hed be playing in it. That was pretty neat."
As she watched her son snip his piece of the netting from the Georgia Dome rims following the championship game, Machaela Humphrey was happiest about one thing.
"That it was over," she said, "and they won."
The end to Humphreys playing days, however, are likely far from over. If not selected in the June NBA Draft, his son will try to catch on with one of the leagues development teams this summer, Tony said. Hell try Europe if that option doesnt pan out.
"He wants to play," Tony said. "Hes just going to have to wait and see what happens these next two months. Hes willing to go overseas and play if he gets the chance. He wants to try, so I told him to go for it."
That McMahan and Humphrey would claim national crowns in the same
season was fated in some respects. Both were emerging talents by middle
school. By the time McMahan reached Heritage as a freshman, Humphrey,
entering his senior
season at Maryville, was an established star.
As they say on the playground, game recognizes game. One fateful afternoon, Teresa and Cait drove by and spotted Humphrey jogging on the Maryville Middle School track.
"Lee was jogging at the track," Tony Humphrey said. "Cait came over with her mother and Cait got out. She said, Lee, when are you going to go shoot. Ill come shoot with you."
Machaela, Lee and Tony watched the Tennessee/Rutgers game together. When Lee spotted McMahan on the Tennessee bench, all those days ago came flooding back.
"He said, Mom, dad, thats Caity!" Macheala said.
"Its like they cant believe it themselves they were on
It was much the same for Earl McMahan the night before.
"Our family has known Lee and his family for a long time," he said. "It was great to see Lee do so well. It was great to see our daughter so happy."