Few people can stop Ebony Rowe when she gets going.
On the basketball court, that reality is most definitely Middle Tennessee's gain. The latest in a long line of undersized and overlooked All-America candidates for the Blue Raiders, Rowe is a relentless force in the post. She put up 25 points and 16 rebounds in 40 minutes in her first college game, against Big East member South Florida, three seasons ago, and has yet to ease off the throttle. The 6-foot-1 forward averaged a double-double as a freshman and again as a sophomore. And through the first five games of her junior season, wouldn't you know it, she's averaging 19.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.
For Janay Brinkley, on the other hand, it's not such a great thing off the court. It seems the Blue Raiders teammates, roommates and best friends can't go anywhere in the car without Rowe, a physics major who plans to pursue a career in engineering, interrupting whatever music or conversation might be under way to explain why, for example, the exit ramp they are in the process of taking was designed the way it was.
Like so many opposing defenders over the years, Brinkley is helpless to stop her. And Brinkley can't even foul her.
"Ebony, I don't care about this. I'm an advertising and marketing major; you don't have to explain this to me," Brinkley recalled typically, and futilely, protesting. "But she'll sit there and explain it to me. That's just how she is; she really likes what she does."
This is why coach Rick Insell says he contemplated going back to school to get another degree when he signed Rowe, if only so he could understand what she was talking about. It's also why one of his favorite rebukes in those rare moments she gets something wrong in practice is to offer the sarcastic suggestion that she would have gotten it right if it had been a physics problem.
Some players go to the movies on the road. Rowe breaks out the laptop to watch thermodynamics lectures.
"I get teased all the time," Rowe said. "I'm just so used to it by now. I'm usually the team nerd."
She might also be an All-American, a Rhodes scholar or both by the time she's done in Murfreesboro. Those are lofty goals, but the fact that people on both sides of the academic-athletic divide even talk about such things says a lot.
The daughter of an engineer father, and whose older sister is also an engineer, Rowe got the itch to follow in the family business when she started taking higher-level math courses in middle school.
"I just loved problem solving," Rowe said of what sparked her passion. "You're just given so many resources and you have to build something, you have to create something."
Insell knows the feeling. One of the most successful high school coaches in the history of the state of Tennessee, he has yet to win fewer than 20 games in seven completed seasons at Middle Tennessee, six of which ended in the NCAA tournament. His teams have beaten top-10 teams and been ranked in the top 25. He has had his share of highly touted recruiting classes, especially given the mid-major surroundings, but from Chrissy Givens to Amber Holt to Alysha Clark and now Rowe, he also has pulled superstars out of the recruiting discard pile of programs in BCS conferences.
The coach always liked what he saw out of Rowe when she was going through the high school ranks in Lexington, Ky., but he also was convinced she was going to Western Kentucky. Both of her parents had attended the school, and it only made sense the Hilltoppers would lock up a player who was a second-team all-state selection. But when Insell heard the door might be open a crack while Western Kentucky waited out a possible transfer from Louisville, he arranged a home visit and was in his car heading north within a matter of days to close the deal.
Beyond Western Kentucky, how did so many BCS programs in such close proximity to Lexington miss out on a kid who can average a double-double and boost the team GPA?
"They probably thought she was a little undersized," Insell said. "But you know, I've got this thing, you can measure height and you can measure vertical jump and lateral quickness, but I don't know if you can measure heart. I'm telling you, she's a winner. She hates losing. And she gives you every ounce of energy when that ball goes up. She may have a bad night shooting the basketball, but she doesn't have a bad night giving you everything she's got."
If it's hard to measure heart, it's also hard to determine exactly what those intangibles mean. But in Rowe's case, fittingly, maybe there is some proof.
She returned home to Lexington this past summer for an engineering internship with Lexmark, a major corporation and a big opportunity that afforded her hands-on experience with robotics and other things that will shape her career well beyond her basketball-playing days. But each night after she got off work, she headed first to a weight-training workout and then to an on-court workout. As much as Insell loves to extoll her virtues on just about every front, he also called her "the worst free throw shooter" he had ever seen last season. She went to the line 206 times and hit just 94 of the attempts, a 45.6 percent conversion rate. Had she shot just 70 percent, she would have averaged 17.8 points per game instead of 16.3 points. He also wanted her to expand her range, a necessity for an undersized post. So night after night, Rowe shot, worked with a coach on her guard skills and then shot some more.
"She comes back, and she didn't have to tell the coaching staff she worked," Insell said. "Because the minute she set foot on the floor in the first practice, you could see she was a changed person."
Through five games, Rowe is shooting 66 percent from the line, not anything that will break records, but a major improvement. If that's what Insell means by heart, it isn't just platitudes.
Rowe's future might rest in mechanical engineering or maybe electrical engineering. For the time being, she just wants to get through her quantum mechanics class. And boy, haven't we all been there. But the quizzical looks she used to get when people in the physics department learned she played basketball, like the quizzical looks she used to get when people in the athletic department learned she majored in physics, have faded.
At some point, they realize there's just no stopping her.
"I think the first day I walked into class, I had my sweats on," Rowe recalled. "And everyone just kind of looked at me like, 'Are you in the right place?' Now that I've had a lot of them in my classes for a couple of years, and they know me and I know them, it's gotten a lot better."
There are probably a dozen programs in the top 25 that would find room for Rowe in the starting lineup right now. But sometimes, being overlooked is the best endorsement of all.
"Honestly, I wasn't bothered," Rowe said. "My dad has always basically just taught me you've got to work hard, and when you work hard, what you deserve will come to you. I always told myself I didn't have to go to the biggest school or the biggest-name school, I just have to go somewhere that really wants me and really believes in my talents and what I can do. So it never really bothered me. I just found a school that was a perfect fit for me."
Just don't ask her to explain the physics behind the fit. We might be here all night.