Just 24 seconds remained on the scoreboard in the corner of the gym. It displayed a commanding score: 90-63 in favor of Maryland women’s basketball.
Pressed in the paint, five-star freshman Riley Nelson swiftly delivered a precise chest pass to the corner. It landed in the waiting hands of Mary Sareen, who just two minutes earlier stepped onto the court for the first time this season.
Upon receiving the pass, Sareen executed a deceptively simple, yet effective shot fake. With a surge of momentum, she propelled herself past the defender, leaving them flat-footed in her wake.
The move sparked an eruption from the bench; teammates leapt to their feet as Sareen defied her opponent with an adept left-handed dribble. As another defender closed in, she halted abruptly and lofted the ball gracefully into the air — and the hoop.
This wasn’t just any basket. It marked Sareen’s first collegiate points, a pinnacle moment that symbolized years of unwavering determination and unyielding self-confidence.
“It was really exciting for me,” Sareen said. “No one really expected me to kind of get this far.”
The exact moment of her first encounter with a basketball eludes Sareen’s memory, but the game has enveloped her as far back as she can recall. Despite dabbling with various sports over the years, basketball’s allure held steadfast.
However, Sareen soon acquainted herself with the harsh reality of being an underdog. Her years in elementary school bore the weight of injuries, including a fractured wrist that benched her for an entire season. Concurrently, she found herself frequently assigned to ‘B’ and ‘C’ teams.
Upon enrolling at Radnor High School in Wayne, Pennsylvania, Sareen found little immediate improvement in her circumstances. She recounts her freshman year, when three of her classmates ascended to the junior varsity squad while she remained tethered to the freshman team.
At a modest height of 5-foot-8, Sareen lacked the towering stature coveted by coaches and scouts. Aware that she needed to alternatively demonstrate her value, she faced a daunting challenge.
Despite her efforts to progress, every stride she made seemed to be met with setbacks. While she earned a spot on the junior varsity team during her sophomore year, she was denied a call-up to the varsity level.
“He must have not been a big fan of me or something,” Sareen said of her coach at the time. “He was like, ‘Keep working, we’ll see.’ And I kept working and had a lot of good games. I was playing really hard and they never swung me up.”
Her junior year brought a pivotal change to Radnor, with Rob Baxter taking the reins of the girls’ varsity basketball team.
Initially slotted as the team’s first player off the bench, Sareen reluctantly accepted her role and promptly showcased her prowess in the next season’s first game. Her standout performance led to a permanent shift; she never returned to the bench in high school.
Baxter quickly became acquainted with Sareen’s unparalleled dedication. Recognizing her habit of being the first to arrive and the last to depart the gym, Baxter also noted her meticulous analysis of opponents. He even speculated that she watched more film than the coaching staff.
“Film is my favorite thing, probably. And we spend like hours and hours on film, from like games we play, from games that we’re going to play,” Sareen said. “The coaches, they dissect every single game to the smallest things and it’s really interesting to learn from that.”
The basketball junkie emerged as a pivotal leader, both on and off the court. Baxter observed how Sareen earned immense respect from her teammates. Leading through actions, she maintained a balanced perspective.
However, it wasn’t a storybook year — not even close.
Radnor made it to the district semifinals and held a solid lead with only a few minutes left. At the conclusion of a timeout, Sareen stepped back onto the court, only to unexpectedly trip. Unable to break her fall, she collided with the floor, resulting in a fractured kneecap.
“I tried to, like, go back in [the game],” Sareen said. “I tried — I could not run. And then I got an X-ray later and it was really a fracture.”
Without Sareen, Radnor lost the game.
The injury also brought forth a significant decision for Sareen. She grappled with choosing between prioritizing her studies or a future in basketball.
According to Baxter, Sareen had several opportunities to play Division III basketball. Despite this, her parents insisted she prioritize academics. After much contemplation, she chose to honor her parents’ wishes, which she found entirely reasonable.
So, Sareen exclusively applied to schools with Division I athletics, convinced that her chances of playing beyond high school were slim. Nevertheless, her love for the game wasn’t going to be extinguished.
Baxter witnessed Sareen’s dedicated efforts throughout the summer as she worked hard to recover from her injury. Her relentless training paid dividends — she not only delivered an exceptional senior season but also earned all-league accolades and the team’s MVP award.
When Sareen chose to attend Maryland, Baxter proposed the idea of her becoming a student manager. She had the position secured, but everything changed when Sareen contacted Baxter with unexpected news: she was being offered an opportunity to try out for the team.
Without hesitation, she aced the tryout.
Now, Sareen stands tall as one of the team’s two walk-on players, joining fellow freshman Zen Nuako.
“Just, you know, really high work ethic and just tremendous pride to be a part of our program,” head coach Brenda Frese added. “We’re super grateful that she’s been able to come in and blend in immediately into a really selfless role.”
Sareen wholeheartedly accepted and embraced her current role despite limited playing time. Just as she has in numerous instances in the past, she aims to capitalize on this unforeseen opportunity.
“Just kind of being like present even though I might not be on the court is like really important to me,” Sareen said. “The bench energy is really important and all of us take a lot of pride in [it].”
“It does take a lot of courage to come in and be a walk-on and you can be intimidated by the atmosphere,” graduate forward Brinae Alexander said. “But she doesn’t let it affect her.”
Most wouldn’t maintain such a resilient attitude through ups and downs. Sareen credits her mindset to her ultimate role model: Kobe Bryant.
“I’ve always looked up to him,” Sareen said, leaning forward in her chair and enthusiastically retrieving a canvas painting of Bryant. “For me, he’s been like a really big inspiration.”
The walls of Sareen’s bedroom are adorned with posters of the NBA legend, a mosaic of greatness scattered in no particular order. Sareen recounts how she pored over his autobiography and rewatched many of his games, often twice.
So what does basketball truly mean to Sareen?
“[That’s] a hard question,” she answered, sitting at her desk, brows knitted in contemplation and gazing into the distance. Her eyes were a mix of blankness and profound introspection as she attempted to distill a lifetime of sweat, play, camaraderie and memories into a succinct string of letters.
Nearly two minutes tick by in silent, deliberate thought. And then, she spoke: