MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Ebony Rowe, the Conference USA Player of the Year, nearly didn’t make it to Middle Tennessee State University.
A prep standout in Lexington, Ky., it was a foregone conclusion she would attend Western Kentucky, where both parents had graduated. Lady Raiders coach Rick Insell figured why waste time recruiting a prospect he had little to no chance to sign. Then came the phone call from his son, Matt Insell, the top Kentucky assistant at the time and now Ole Miss head coach, informing his father that he had heard Western Kentucky was pulling its scholarship offer to Rowe in favor of another in-state player.
"Immediately, I got on the phone and called (her father) Nick Rowe," Insell said, "and I set up an in-home visit right then. I mean, I’m talking about within a 30-minute period. That was a Wednesday, and I took my entire staff to their home on Friday."
With Insell already establishing MTSU as a top mid-major program, Rowe was more than eager to listen. But she also had some trepidation about what he was selling.
"Coach Insell told me all the things I would accomplish and our team would accomplish," said Rowe, who has led the Lady Raiders (26-4) this season to the Conference USA regular-season title and current No. 22 national ranking. "I kind of looked at him like he was crazy when he was recruiting me. Clearly, he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He always talks about how he is a good measure of a player’s heart and how much they want to work hard."
Insell sure got it right with Rowe, who has arguably become the best player in program history, especially if that designation is stats-specific. Already MTSU’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder, she owns 13 school records and is ranked fifth in the country this season with 23 double-doubles. A 6-foot-1 senior forward, Rower also ranks 13th in the country in rebounding (11.3), 19th in total points (640) and 21st in scoring (21.3).
According to Insell, she’s the most underrated player in women’s college basketball.
"I don’t think there is any doubt about it," he said, noting her double-doubles this season against national powers Tennessee and Kentucky. "I would say that she is on everybody’s radar now because of not only what she has done with (76) career double-doubles, but the fact that we are ranked in the top-25 of both polls."
Indeed, Rowe is quite the player on the court, where her intensity is infectious with teammates, including forward Olivia Jones, the Conference USA Freshman of the Year. Insell likes that aspect in the senior leader’s game, too.
"I won’t say she’s got a temper," the coach said, "but she is intense. When people don’t do things right, don’t make a good pass, or they have a chance to get a loose ball and they give up on it, she’ll go get on them."
The honor student will graduate this spring with a major in physics and minor in engineering. She has already been accepted into a post-graduate engineering program at Georgia Tech, but she also wonders where her basketball future will lead her, too. Like playing professionally in the WNBA.
"I have given it a lot of thought," Rowe said. "In the past, I honestly didn’t give it much, but knowing that there’s good potential now, I have given it some thought. And if it works out where I still can go to grad school and still play, then that is definitely something I would want to do."
Count MTSU assistant coach Alysha Clark among those who feels Rowe can play at the next level. She should know, too, considering Clark plays for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.
"I’m never one to say somebody can’t play at the next level. I have had many people tell me I couldn’t," Clark said. "So, I am a firm believer that if you put your mind and heart into it and be in the right situation with the right timing, you never know. But I definitely think she can."
Before that, though, Rowe feels MTSU has unfinished business in regards to the NCAA Tournament. With a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 20th nationally, the Lady Raiders figure to be an at-large berth lock, should they not win the league tourney and garner its automatic bid.
Under Insell, MTSU has made the NCAA Tournament seven of eight seasons and formerly owned the Sun Belt Conference on the strength of coaching five All-Americans and three WNBA draft picks. But the Lady Raiders have yet to win successive NCAA tourney games and make the Sweet 16 round.
"Coach Insell always talks about leaving a legacy, especially for our senior class," Rowe said. "I think we have already done that with broken records and having an amazing senior year. But this end stretch is where we really want to prove ourselves. First, we want to win the conference tournament. Then, we really feel like we can go to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament."
Rowe acknowledges that getting the monkey off MTSU’s back and making the Sweet 16 for the first time is the first step.
"We have talked about that preseason to present day," Rowe said. "That has been our goal. We always talk about it, but we just can’t seem to get there. That would be the way to end my senior year."