Up until last season, Tennessee's Sweet 16 attendance had ranked among life's great certainties: Coach Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols had never lost in the NCAA tournament's first two rounds, going 42--0. Seeded fifth in 2009, the defending champions drew a favorable matchup against tourney newbie Ball State—or so it appeared. The Cardinals shot a scorching 57.1% in the second half en route to the historic 71--55 upset.
No player took the loss harder than Kelley Cain, then a redshirt freshman. The 6'6" center had 10 points and eight rebounds when, with 4:27 left in the first half, she reinjured her right kneecap, which had been surgically repaired 16 months earlier. "I just remember going in the back and trying to run, and my knee just wasn't letting me go," she says. "I felt so bad that I couldn't get back out there."
Cain had to undergo another surgery and pursue a rigorous rehab regimen to be ready for Summitt's withering off-season conditioning program. "We'd see her fighting through it," says junior guard Angie Bjorklund, "and just when we're thinking she might not make it, she's saying, 'No, I'm staying in anyway.' That meant a lot for us because we're going to need her out there to help us fight through some of those tougher games [in the tournament]."
As Cain's health has improved, so too has her confidence—and that, says Lady Vols assistant Dean Lockwood, "has enabled her to invest more in her game. The things that she's worked on, you see them happen on the court."
Cain averaged 10.2 points and 7.4 rebounds while ranking first in shooting (65.8%) and blocks (4.5) in SEC conference games. Her steadiness will be key for Tennessee to advance deep into March. "What's past is done," Cain says. "We're focused on the present. We all have something to prove."