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ESPN The Magazine: Little Mac
ESPN The Magazine

The chant bounces into every corner of the gym, cascading above a sea of bright orange: “It’s GREAT to BE a Tennessee Lady Vol!” And it sure is. The Pyramid in Memphis rattles with “Rocky Top” as Tennessee jumps out to a double-digit first-half lead. Pat Summitt paces the sideline in her power suit, arms crossed, gum snapping, eyes ablaze. And in the second half, the state’s best point guard takes over. She grew up dreaming of a moment like this, with herself under Summitt’s watch and the game in her grasp. On this night she leads all scorers, swipes at every loose ball and suffocates the enemy with free throws. When the final horn sounds, her teammates mob her in triumph.

It’s great to be a Tennessee Lady Vol. Except that Ashley McElhiney, the difference-maker in last spring’s SEC quarterfinal -- and the only Tennesseean who played that night-is not a Lady Vol at all. She’s a bandit in Vanderbilt black and gold.

The Vols had their hands so full with 6'6" Naismith candidate Chantelle Anderson and 6'2" All-SEC forward Zuzi Klimesova that they forgot to contain the 5'6" blizzard who makes Vandy’s maniacal motion offense go. The girl they call Mac learned to take charge -- and charges -- in a tiny gym just a tank of gas away from Knoxville. But she ended up in Nashville, where she has screamed and screened the Commodores to national (if not state) prominence.

“Mac is a true point guard,” Anderson says. “She is the glue that holds our team together.” She is, above all, the catalyst in Vandy coach Jim Foster’s concoction for dethroning the almighty Vols. “There is a beast that has to be slain,” Foster says. And Ashley McElhiney is Vanderbilt’s slingshot.

***

Gleason, Tenn., has no stoplight. Take I-40 west out of Nashville for about two hours, past Bucksnort and the Loretta Lynn Dude Ranch, then get on Highway 22 and follow it until you see the Master Muffler -- about the closest thing you’ll find to a Gleason welcome sign. Off to your right, down past the post office, you’ll see Gleason High (student population: 200). This is where, on a small courtside stage draped in musty curtains, Ashley Mac first picked up a basketball.

From the time she was a kindergartner, McElhiney stuck around after school and watched her sister, Kellie, practice with the Lady Bulldogs. The pigtailed tot in nylon shorts would sit on that stage and stare out at the court, clutching a basketball bigger than her head. She mimicked all her sister’s moves, from shooting to suicides. And when coach Randy Frazier blew his whistle or shot a glare at one of his players, the chubby redhead picked up her ball and stood at silent attention. Soon enough, little Mac became the first 5-year-old girl in the history of Gleason to dribble with her off-hand.

Kellie went on to play for Tennessee-Martin (’89-93), while Ashley went on to make varsity in eighth grade. She took on everything Frazier threw at her -- even bodies. During pregame warmups, while opponents hit layups, the Bulldogs practice taking charges. “It’s like pro wrestling,” says Frazier, who doubles as school principal. “You gotta learn how to fall.” He guesses Ashley ended up on her tail 70 times during her career. She led the gritty, undersized Bulldogs (no player over 5'7") to a state championship as a senior in ’99, winning Miss Tennessee honors. In fact, of all the goals Ashley Mac set for herself -- from the time she set foot on that little stage until the day she walked across it as a graduate -- she achieved all but one.

Forget what the almanac says: Tennessee really does have a state color. It’s orange. Bright orange. “Orange is a bad color,” Foster says in his best deadpan. “It’s a loud color. It doesn’t allow you to ignore it.” In Gleason, orange leaks out of just about every room. “Gleason is Tennessee Town,” McElhiney says. The Bulldogs wear orange. Ashley’s first car was an orange Eclipse. And, like any red-blooded Tennessee girl with a hankering for hoops, she attended Pat Summitt’s camp in Knoxville, imagining herself in orange for years to come. “Growing up,” she says, “that was always the dream-to play for Tennessee.”

But Tennessee wasn’t interested. The Lady Vols already had a commitment from 5'7" Indiana native April McDivitt and an eye on future star Kara Lawson, a 5'9" spark plug from Virginia. “We felt that was our quota for small guards,” says UT assistant Mickie DeMoss, who made one trip to Gleason and left McElhiney with a smile and a “good luck.”

“I had hoped to get more attention from them,” Ashley says. She got plenty of love from Nashville, though. Foster fell for Mac from the moment he saw her taking charges as a prep sophomore in an all-star showcase in Birmingham. “Everyone else talks about her height,” he says. “But I saw no negatives.” Neither did Ashley. After she committed to Vandy, it wasn’t long before the girl from Tennessee Town learned to loathe orange. She traded in her orange Eclipse for a black Montero; three years later, she doesn’t own anything with even a fleck of orange in it.

***

Vanderbilt athletic director Todd Turner leans back in his brown leather chair, placing his palms against each other as if in prayer. Seated behind a brown lacquered desk big enough to land a chopper on, he talks about the school’s “unique challenge” of winning its first national championship ever -- in any sport. Tough to do, Turner says, at a university obsessed more with books than bounce passes: “Our greatest problem is that we labor in the shadows of the SEC’s success.”

But then Ashley McElhiney’s name comes up, and suddenly Turner leans forward and grins widely. “She’s a tough little thing, ain’t she?!” he gushes. “Like a middle linebacker! Like a little Ping-Pong ball out there! Ever seen her set a screen?” He jumps up, crosses his arms in front of his gilded belt buckle, and starts bucking imaginary defenders all over his office. “She just decks people!” Then he returns to his seat, adjusts his tie and calmly says, “Ashley represents what we want people to feel about Vanderbilt -- an unexpected entrant in the fray.”

Foster expected another Ashley to lead Vandy two years ago. But when the Commodores dropped six straight that February, the coach benched junior Ashley Smith -- and Ashley Mac entered the fray. She’d already grasped Foster’s chain-reaction spread offense, with its dependence on player decisions rather than set plays. Under her direction, the Commodores turned things around and made the NCAA Tourney, beating Kansas before bowing out. “All of a sudden, the floor got big,” Foster says. “We wouldn’t have made the Tourney without Mac.”

As a soph last season, McElhiney averaged 10 points and an SEC-best 6.2 assists, helping Vandy to a 24-10 record and an Elite Eight appearance. But the highlight was her mummification of the Vols in the Pyramid. She dropped 27 points, snared a career-high eight boards and nailed 12 free throws in the final 3:16 as the Commodores beat Tennessee for the first time in 19 tries. The next day, the Memphis Commercial Appeal listed the Play of the Game as “any play that Vanderbilt guard Ashley McElhiney touched the ball.”

How important is Mac to Vandy’s plans? When she suffered a stress fracture in her left foot in the opening two minutes of a game against Georgia last January, the Commodores stumbled too, going 1-3 without their No.1. “We were lost,” Anderson says. Doctors told Mac to take it easy in her return against LSU. But she played 33 minutes and scored 29 points in a slump-stopping win, then played all 40 minutes in eight of Vandy’s final 10 games. “We look to her for everything,” Anderson says. “We’ll stand there until she tells us what to do.”

Exhibit A: Foster has a highlight video of McElhiney raising hell. She’s taking charges, setting screens, egging opponents into technicals, and -- most tellingly -- yelling at Klimesova for straying from her post in another game against Georgia. (The clip shows Zuzi screeching to a halt in the key and peeling back to the perimeter like a marionette on a string.) During last season’s second of three games against Tennessee, Mac’s stern commands even got the attention of Vols center Michelle Snow, who leaned over to her good friend Anderson after a stop in play and whispered, “Whoa! You gonna take that from her?” Absolutely.

“She can be a little bossy,” says Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, whose Irish eliminated Vandy in last spring’s Midwest Final. “But that’s the sign of a great point guard. As soon as she has the ball, you know you have to take care of her. Otherwise, she’ll kill you.”

Can the little general slay the beast again? The Commodores find themselves right there with the Lady Vols in the Top 5, but Foster is understandably cautious. “Is this a rivalry?” he asks. “I don’t think so yet.” When Tennessee comes to Nashville Feb. 2, fans in orange will -- as always -- outnumber fans in gold. And UT is -- as always -- just one of several powerhouses in the nation’s toughest conference. But that’s why Foster took the job 10 years ago even when colleagues thought he was crazy. And that’s why he took Ashley Mac even when others called her an Ohio Valley Conference player. “Why wouldn’t you want the ultimate challenge?” he says. “We just need to get more kids like McElhiney.”

That might not be so easy anymore. Last year, McGraw traveled to southwest Ohio to scout a blue-chip 5'7" point guard named Megan Duffy, who has since verbaled to South Bend. “At first I thought she was a little short,” McGraw admits. “But then I thought, ‘Don’t forget about Ashley.’”

This article appears in the November 26 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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