The last time she walked off the Gwinnett Arena floor, Kelley Cain was wearing a St. Pius uniform, with her third state championship trophy in tow.
Few have seen more success in Duluth than Cain, Tennessee's post player, who returns to Gwinnett this week to play in the SEC women's basketball tournament (Thursday-Sunday). Cain doesn't lose in this building.
"It brings back so many memories, playing at the Gwinnett Arena," said Cain, whose last title came in 2007. "We won three state championships there. That's mostly what I remember."
The competition will be stiffer this time around for the 6-foot-6 sophomore, who has established herself this season as one of the SEC's best post defenders and is one of four Lady Vols who averages double-figures in scoring.
What separates Cain from many of her contemporaries is that she is a true post. She doesn't want to be a slashing wing or drift out to the perimeter to fire the occasional 3-pointer. She's comfortable on the low block, collecting rebounds (fifth in the SEC at 7.9 per game), getting easy baskets (SEC-best .658 field-goal percentage) and blocking shots (4.5 per game, almost a full two per game better than anyone else in the conference).
Having a player who knows her role as well as she does has been a boon for the Lady Vols and coach Pat Summitt, as they've bounced back from a relatively disappointing fourth-place SEC finish and first-round NCAA tournament loss last season to win the regular-season conference title this year.
"I thought early on, she was very well-coached [in high school]," Summitt said. "She played within herself. She didn't try to be a guard. She played to her true position as a post player and brought tremendous success to the [St. Pius] program because of it.
"It's tremendous to have a player like Kelley that understands where she needs to go all the time. She's going to go to the rim; she's going to use the glass."
It has taken her a while to get to this point, though. Knee injuries have plagued her since her sophomore year at St. Pius. She has had two surgeries on her right knee since going to Knoxville, the most recent one last April. (The first, in December 2007, led to a decision that she would redshirt as a freshman.) She still played 27 games last season, but this is the first season at Tennessee in which she has been close to full strength.
She said the experience of having knee injuries in the past has helped her deal with the subsequent surgeries and rehabilitation assignments.
"It's not like I hadn't done it before," Cain said of her latest comeback from surgery. "I know what it takes. It's frustrating that I had to go through it again. When something happens, it happens.
"There's still going to be pain no matter what I do, but it's a different pain from what it was last year. I think I'm able to handle it better."
It has shown, especially in her defense.
On Feb. 22 against LSU, Cain set a school record with 12 blocks in 23 minutes of play. She was the first Lady Vols player to block as many as 10 shots in a game. For good measure, she added 16 points and seven rebounds that night.
"She has a high basketball IQ," Summitt said. "That gives her an understanding and the knowledge and the discipline that you can't go for every block and expect to get it. You've got to play smart. That's what has allowed her to have such an impact on our post game."
It's not just a significant post presence she has brought to this team. The maturity Cain showed as a player at St. Pius has followed her to Knoxville, where she has quickly become one of the team's most respected players, even if she is only technically a sophomore.
The skills she shows on the floor -- whether it's scoring, rebounding or playing defense -- are important, but some of the intangibles don't necessarily show up on the stat sheet. Summitt said that may be where Cain has had her biggest impact.
"She's had a powerful impact on our younger players," Summitt said. "I expected that from Kelley, and I talked to Kelley about it. If she speaks in the huddle, they listen and respond to Kelley.
"I think there's a great upside still because she's young. I think she has recognized that the game doesn't know youth."
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com