PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Mary Blessing will cross halfcourt at the Brown Athletic Center at Rutgers University early this evening, flash her teammates a number and shout out a play, then set the University of Toledo offense in motion.
A year ago, Blessing never expected to end up in New Jersey, to be in the NCAA Tournament, or be wearing a Rocket uniform. It has been that kind of year for the freshman from Indianapolis.
“I was watching the NCAA tournament on television last year, because my team was out of the high school tournament,” Blessing said, “and you think about it - you wonder what it would be like to play in the NCAA. It's pretty neat how it turned out, but I could never have expected to be here. I probably couldn't even have dreamed it.”
But when the Rockets (25-5) take on Southwest Missouri State (25-5) today at 6:05 p.m. in a first round game in the NCAA West Regional, the ball will be in Blessing's hands. Things just kind of worked out that way.
Blessing, who was the top high school softball player in Indiana as well as all-state in basketball, was signed, sealed and nearly delivered to Evansville. At the eleventh hour, the Evansville coach got a job elsewhere, so Blessing asked to be released from her commitment there.
She got that release, took a scholarship offered by UT coach Mark Ehlen, and started down a rather circuitous trail that has brought her to Piscataway. Blessing filled a reserve role for the first half of the season, then Ehlen, unhappy with a spell of inconsistent play his team had gone through, decided to put her at the point.
“I was immediately impressed with her ability to learn and to adapt, and it was apparent from the start that she was pretty unflappable for a freshman,” Ehlen said. “She just showed a real knack for doing smart basketball things - things you don't often see coming from a freshman. We knew we couldn't hold her back.”
Blessing has started the last 16 games, and the Rockets have won every one of them. She has 64 assists and just 23 turnovers in those games, is averaging around five points per game, and is shooting 47 percent from the field.
“At the time she took over our team chemistry was still coming along,” UT senior Kahli Carter said, “but we had confidence in Mary's ability to handle the point for us. We didn't expect her to make freshman mistakes because she's very poised for a freshman and makes good decisions. There's a lot of pressure with the position, but she's handled it like a veteran.”
With 30 collegiate games now on her resume, Blessing is a lot closer to being a sophomore in terms of playing time than she is a freshman, Ehlen points out. So when the Rockets go at the Lady Bears and their star, senior guard Jackie Stiles, who led the nation with 30.7 points per game this season, Ehlen has no reservations about throwing Blessing into the fire once again.
“She's done everything we've asked of her, and more,” he said. “She's become a better shooter, she plays good defense, and she has the ability to get the ball to people. She's going to run the thing for us.”
Blessing has taken the position of being thrilled, but not awed, by where the journey of the last year has landed her - running the offense for the Rockets in the NCAA Tournament.
“When I first got to Toledo, I thought I would just come off the bench, give the team some quality minutes, and maybe set people up for some shots or hit a few shots,” Blessing said. “But I never expected to start, or to have a run like this that brings us here - to the NCAA tournament. But here we are, and I can't wait to play.”