Kelley Cain, who opted to end her Lady Vol career and forego a fifth year of eligibility because of chronic knee, back and hip pain, has worked two basketball camps this month and remains in Knoxville for another few weeks. She has shown up for the league games to watch her former teammates and casually mentioned to Kamiko Williams on Tuesday that she missed playing.
Williams took that as an offer and asked Cain if she would play if Williams approached the league’s acting commissioner, Atlee Hammaker - who has filled in because Habibi Andre’s job out of state has kept her from being able to attend the games - about signing up Cain.
Hammaker needed a nanosecond to agree, and Cain joined Williams’ Smith & Hammaker team – though Hammaker coaches Pilot so he wasn’t motivated by competitive gain but by fan reaction to another Lady Vol – on Thursday against frontrunner DeRoyal.
“Her big heart came out and she said, ‘OK,’ ” Williams said.
Cain made a difference in game strategy – DeRoyal went up 10-2 while Cain was on the bench and then Smith & Hammaker took a 14-10 lead with Cain on the floor because DeRoyal stopped going inside and settled instead on misfired jump shots.
But DeRoyal changed its strategy and pushed tempo with the speedy Glory Johnson and hustle play of Alicia Manning to take advantage of Cain’s court layoff and fellow big Alyssia Brewer just being cleared to run a week ago after a cleanup procedure on her Achilles tendon.
DeRoyal, 3-0, prevailed 72-62, and will next play Fellowship of Christian Athletes, also 3-0, which defeated Duncan Automotive, 101-76, with Shekinna Stricklen nailing five treys, one of which was shot from about 30 feet out and swished through the net, much to the delight of the crowd at Christian Academy of Knoxville.
Cain played nearly 30 minutes and scored four points but wisely avoided contact with her history of knee, hip and back injuries and also concussions. Her presence in the paint opened lanes for drivers – she cleared a path for her willing teammates – and Williams tallied 22 points with Brewer adding seven and Stephanie Torrence reaching double figures with 10.
Afterwards, Cain’s gait was a tad stiff-legged – the way she has walked the past three seasons – but she was smiling.
“Everything starts hurting,” Cain said with a smile. “That is why I stopped. I am not even going full speed, and I am hurting like that.”
If Cain had any second thoughts about her decision in April to stop playing, Thursday would have ended them.
“I was never second-guessing myself and I am personally content with it,” said Cain, who had arthroscopic surgery after the season to remove bone spurs from her right hip. “I didn’t want to do it, but it is something that I know I had to do. It was something I could push through until it all came to an end.”
Tennessee’s season ended in late March in a loss to Notre Dame in the regional final in Dayton, Ohio. That was the last time Cain was on a court until Thursday.
“I am content with my decision (but) I love basketball,” Cain said.
Cain’s abrupt end to her college career meant she had not been job-hunting during the season, and now she is looking to put the marketing degree she earned in May to work. In the meantime, she has worked two basketball camps – one at Middle Tennessee State with former Lady Vol Alex Fuller, who is an assistant coach, and the elite camp at Tennessee.
“I am trying to find a real job,” Cain said with a laugh. “I am looking. I wasn’t prepared (for the end), but I will be fine. I love marketing, and I want to stay as close to sports as possible. If not, it’s not a deal breaker.”
Cain left the door open to playing one more game in the league next week.
“We’ll see,” Cain said.
“She’s going to come to at least one more game next week,” Williams said. “It might be her last, but she’s going to come to at least one more.”
With six current or former Lady Vols on the court in one game – Williams, Brewer, Cain, Johnson, Manning and Dominique Redding – there was quite a bit of chatter. Johnson played her physical brand of basketball and it irritated Brewer, who answered in kind at times.
“It got a little intense today,” Williams said. “We were going at it.”
“You have to commend them,” Cain said. “Everybody is competitive, and nobody is out there horsing around. You could see them going at it. It shows the level of respect they have for the fans who are coming out to watch them because that is what they want to see. They want to see the girls go at it and play hard.”
Johnson was surprised to learn that Cain would take the court.
“Miko told me, but I was like, ‘No, that’s not fair,’ ” Johnson said. “I didn’t think she would play, but she came.”
Johnson did welcome the sight of Cain back on the court, even as an opponent.
“That’s really nice to see,” Johnson said, “that she can still be active.”
Johnson wasn’t physical with Cain – and the 6’6 center impeded her path to the basket at times – but Johnson and Brewer mixed it up inside.
“It’s fun,” Johnson said. “I know that I gave my all out there.”
The second game of the evening was a three-ball fest among Taber Spani, Shekinna Stricklen and Tyler Powers of Lenoir City High School as FCA bombarded the winless Duncan Automotive, 0-3, from behind the arc – in Stricklen’s case from way behind the arc.
Spani poured in 40 points with five treys and also scored in the paint while Stricklen also hit five threes and tallied 25 points. Powers added 18 points on the strength of six treys.
Former Lady Vol and now Chattanooga Moc Faith Dupree scored 25 points – she also connected from long range – and Taylor Mills, who will play this season at Carson-Newman, added 20 for Duncan.
Pilot, 2-1, and the News Sentinel, 0-3, ended the evening action with Pilot down two players – one of which was Lady Vol freshman Isabelle Harrison who had a test early Friday morning and was studying, as Thursday’s game didn’t end until after 10 p.m. – so the five on the court went the distance.
The News Sentinel nearly got its first win as Webb’s Marjorie Butler scored inside and out for 42 points, but Pilot nipped Butler’s squad, 81-80, behind 21 points from Meighan Simmons, 19 by Kelsey Brown, and 15 each from Shannon Depew and Shannon Parks.
That ended the first week of play in the summer league, which concludes next week with games on July 5, 6 and 7.
Play begins July 5 at 6 p.m. with Smith & Hammaker vs. Pilot. The 7:30 game features the two unbeatens in DeRoyal and FCA, and Duncan Automotive and the News Sentinel play each other at 9 p.m. so one team will get its first league win.
“Be there,” Spani said.
Game One: Smith & Hammaker vs. DeRoyal
Kelley Cain and Kamiko Williams
Game Two: Fellowship of Christian Athletes vs. Duncan Automotive
Taber Spani and Shekinna Stricklen
Game Three: Pilot vs. the News Sentinel