Yahoo Sports By Jeff Eisenberg
Tennessee State coach John Cooper was in the midst of his pregame speech before Tuesday night's matchup with top-ranked North Carolina when he paused to let redshirt freshman M.J. Rhett greet a surprise visitor.
It was then that Rhett's mother walked through the door of the locker room and wrapped her son in a teary-eyed bear hug.
Stephanie Rhett is an E-5 sergeant in the Army National Guard currently deployed in Iraq. The last time she and her son saw each other in person prior to Tuesday night was just before she left for Iraq in August.
"When I saw her, I was in disbelief," the younger Rhett said by phone after the game. "I hadn't seen her in so long and I hadn't talked to her in the past three or four days. I didn't have any clue what was going on and I was getting a little worried how she was doing. But when she popped up in the locker room, I was shocked and relieved."
The anxiety of not knowing whether his mom was safe and when he would talk to her next has been challenging for Rhett the past four months. Stephanie Rhett took a 10-year hiatus from the military to raise her son, so it's a new experience for him not having her nearby to provide guidance or support when he needs it.
Frequent Skype conversations have made the transition easier, but Rhett admits it was a huge relief to see his mom in person. She watched from directly behind the Tennessee State bench Tuesday night as the 6-foot-8 Rhett scored two points and grabbed five rebounds in 17 minutes in the Tigers' 102-69 loss to the Tar Heels.
"She's had a huge influence on my life," Rhett said. "She's like my best friend. I talk to her almost every day. I can talk to her about anything, girls, basketball, school, anything. No matter what, I can talk to her."
Since Rhett hadn't yet spoken to his mom at length immediately after the game, he didn't even know how long she'd be able to stay. Rhett later learned she didn't have to return to Iraq for two weeks, meaning he'll have a family Thanksgiving on Thursday with both his mom and his dad, former South Carolina star Joe Rhett.
Maybe Rhett's favorite moment from Tuesday night's game was one he didn't get a chance to see in person. North Carolina fans gave a standing ovation to his mom at halftime when they introduced her after playing the video below on the video board at the Dean Dome.
"That's really nice," Rhett said. "Even though I didn't get to see it, it's a great feeling. We had a tough loss, but I'm glad everyone was supportive that she was serving our country."