University of Tampa athlete. Recent college grad. And mom of Maz

TAMPA — University of Tampa women’s basketball coach Tom Jessee mildly scoffs at the perception of bus trips blanketed in silence as players sternly lock in on that night’s foe, the only sound coming from the churning engine.

No banter, no interactive iPhone games, just mile after mundane mile of steely focus on the contest ahead.

“And the truth of the matter is, that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Jessee said.

Fortunately for the Spartans, who reached the NCAA Division II quarterfinals each of the past two seasons, Mazlynn Jones routinely could be counted on to loosen things up. Maz or Mazy, as many call her, often made the monotonous cross-state trips more bearable. And her very presence offered a healthy dose of perspective to any player who may have been obsessing over a game’s outcome.

Not a bad day’s work for a 3-year-old.

“It was so cool to watch,” Jessee said.

Perhaps even more uplifting than the Spartans’ team toddler was the team mother. Senior guard Sarah Jones, permitted to bring her child along for some of those bus trips, recorded the most steals (53) and second-most 3-pointers (52) for a 31-7 team this past season. For good measure, she graduated last weekend with a psychology degree.

All while raising a blue-eyed bundle of zeal and curiosity as a 24-year-old single mom.

“She keeps me going every day,” Jones said. “Every time I’m coming home, I’m tired, I’m worn out, I just know whenever I get there I’m going to be 10 times happier when I see her, because she just literally brightens up my day every day.”

Not that every bus ride has been a joyride on this improbable mother-daughter journey. Over the last two seasons, the Spartans have traveled as far away as Hawaii and Montana, forcing Jones to arrange care for Maz during her extended absence. She had to adopt a morning-heavy class schedule — the bane of any rational co-ed — to ensure she could pick up Maz before her daycare closed.

And try completing an English paper after a day of school, practice, potty training, preparing dinner and bath time.

“We use (Jones) as an example a lot,” Jessee said.

“Man, when you feel bad or you think things are going hard for you, just remember what Sarah does. Moms don’t get any days off, moms don’t have any vacation days. A single parent raising a child, she’s got help, but you’re not guaranteed to have help, and the days when she didn’t have help, we were the help — and glad to do it.”

A ‘big shocker’

The fifth of eight children (including one adopted girl), Jones was raised in Mason, Ohio, just outside Cincinnati. She was gifted at a young age with speed and a silky, resonant voice, not necessarily in that order. She sang in her church choirs throughout childhood and embraced hoops as a prepubescent.

“She picked up a basketball in third grade, and she really never looked back,” said her mom, Jennifer Terry. “She has a heart for basketball.”

She evolved into a versatile perimeter standout for her high school team, which won a state title, and earned a scholarship to Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach, which plays in the same Division II league (Sunshine State Conference) as Tampa. She had an instant impact, averaging nearly 12 points and four rebounds as a freshman.

Her sophomore year was even better. Jones led the 2019-20 Eagles in scoring (14.7 points per game) and steals (2.41 per game), shooting a team-best 36.9% from 3-point range. She even scored 21 in a lopsided, season-ending loss to Tampa in the conference tournament.

“She was a phenomenal player there as a freshman, and as a sophomore was a handful to guard,” Jessee recalled. “Offensive juggernaut, defensive kid, really quick.”

Months after that sophomore season concluded, Jones learned she was pregnant. The father, who attended a neighboring high school in Ohio, was a football player Jones had known for several years.

“It was just like, a big shocker for me,” Jones said.

“I wanted to go full-out my junior year, because I had really good seasons my freshman and sophomore year, but my junior year, I was really comfortable being at the school. ... It was just eye-opening for me because I was like, ‘Whoa.’ There were a lot of emotions going through my mind at the time, but I had a good support system that was able to pick me up and lift me up through that time.”

By then, Jones had gravitated to the bay area, having befriended Spartans guard Melijah Sullivan, who had begun her college career the same season as Jones. On Dec. 13, 2020, Mazlynn Raine Jones was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

“I didn’t think I was going to come back and play basketball again because after I had her I was just like, ‘Yeah, I think this is the time for a new chapter in my life,’ ” Jones said.

Her daughter still less than a year old, Jones didn’t play in the 2021-22 season either. While she contemplated her next move, her parents offered as much financial support as they could. Meantime, she and Sullivan developed a relationship. By the summer of 2022, the itch to play again had returned, and Sullivan said she urged Jessee to consider giving Jones a shot.

When he brought her in for a visit, basketball was a secondary topic. Instead, Jessee — himself the father of a 14-year-old girl — laid out a series of scenarios Jones might encounter as a single mom going to school and playing basketball: Who would care for Maz on road trips? What were the contingencies on days when the baby was sick? Had she found reliable daycare?

“We covered all those bases,” Jessee said. “And it’s easy to say yes, but we wanted to make sure that she had thought all those things through, because we had, too. We just had to make sure she was all-in.

“Sarah never wavered on that. She had an answer for it all.”

A career rebirth

In her first season with the Spartans (the 2022-23 campaign), Jones averaged 9.5 points and nearly 33 minutes, starting 32 of UT’s 35 contests. The Spartans won a school-record 33 games, captured the conference regular-season and tournament crowns, and reached the Division II quarterfinals (the small-school equivalent of the Elite Eight) for the first time in program history.

Early in that season, Maz turned 2.

“To be real honest, she’s pretty much been independent since all through (her UT career),” said Terry, who runs her own residential/commercial cleaning business. “She just made it work.”

Today, Jones and Maz reside with Sullivan in a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in Lutz. In her final season, and final months of school, Jones typically awoke before dawn to get Maz to daycare and navigate the morning commuter traffic in time to make her 8:30 a.m. class. On normal days, classes and practices were completed by around 3 p.m.

Mother-daughter quality time includes lots of swimming (Maz no longer needs floaties) and indulging Maz’s love of “Bluey” (a YouTube cartoon about a Blue Heeler puppy who lives with her family), getting her blondish-red hair styled and chicken nuggets.

“I’ve had young ladies who’ve had children over my 39 years of coaching, but they never were single — they never had the child and were responsible for themselves,” Jessee said. “Normally, a grandparent or parent stepped in during the school year and took over the child completely. That wasn’t the case with Sarah.”

When neither a reliable sitter nor Sullivan were available, Maz tagged along with the team on in-state road trips. Jones has supported herself with scholarship money, some child support and with income Sullivan — a 2023 UT graduate — earns as a full-time barber.

Maz’s father remains in periodic touch with his daughter and Jones, but doesn’t live in Florida and isn’t a part of their day-to-day life, Jones said.

“It’s not easy, but we’re young; we’re 23 and 24,” Sullivan said. “It all started when we were 20 and 21. So we’ve made ends meet since then, and we just take it one day at a time.”

Last weekend, Jones formally graduated during commencement exercises at the Florida State Fairgrounds. Her schooling completed, she finds herself at another crossroads, uncertain as to her next career move. She’s contemplating using her psychology degree to work with special needs children, or perhaps exploring a career in the daycare industry.

Regardless, she rightfully can enhance her resume with a hyphenated word in bold, at the very top: multi-tasker.

“It’s been great,” Jones said. “It’s just nice because I went through these whole two years with a child, and to be able to look back on that, and Mazlynn to look back on that later in life, is just really nice. She can see all that I accomplished with her by my side the whole ride.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Instagram, X and Facebook.