MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders have spent more than week grieving over slain teammate Tina Stewart, and they mourned the junior guard at her funeral two days ago.
Now they are ready to play on — and play better — in her memory in the NCAA tournament.
The Blue Raiders, a member of the Sun Belt Conference, received a rare at-large bid Monday night and will be the 11th seed in the Dallas Region. It's just the second at-large bid ever for Middle Tennessee and first since 1996.
Senior guard Anne Marie Lanning said she had chills go over her hearing the Blue Raiders' name called out — they will play sixth-seeded Georgia on Sunday night in Auburn, Ala.
"Just having to wait all day today has been crazy, and it's been heavy on my heart," she said. "But I had a good feeling we would make it in. It just shows all our hard work and that nationally they're respecting us."
And also possibly an understanding of the tragedy that engulfed the team.
Stewart's roommate, Shanterrica Madden, 18, is charged with first-degree murder in her March 2 death. Madden was freed on $100,000 bond Friday and allowed to return to her Memphis home with her family. She returns to Murfreesboro on March 24 for a preliminary hearing.
Coach Rick Insell was pleased the committee rewarded his team.
"These kids deserve it. What they've been through these last 10, 12 days, I don't know. It's been the toughest thing I've ever had to endure since I've been in coaching, and I'm sure it's the toughest thing they'll ever have to endure. I'm proud of them. I'm just proud of them," Insell said.
NCAA berths are not unusual for Middle Tennessee: this is the program's 14th. Usually there is a big party while the Blue Raiders await to learn their seeding.
Not this year.
The Blue Raiders gathered privately at Insell's home. They had lost their opening round game in their league tournament only days after Stewart was stabbed to death in her off-campus apartment.
After losing 77-62, the players spent a week with their own families during spring break before returning to attend Stewart's funeral. They traveled to Memphis by bus as a team for Saturday's service and for a measure of closure.
Insell said the players had their best practice Monday in probably two months. He attributed their workout to what he described as the "crucial time" they spent with their families. He said it helped the players deal with the loss of a beloved teammate and friend.
"No ifs, ands or buts about it, it probably was the best thing that those young ladies could've had was to have that week off to go home and get with their parents, their friends back home where they were from ... just to clear their minds," Insell said.
Said Lanning: "It still hurts my heart to know she's not with us. Also my heart feels good because I know if Tina had the option to come back she would, but she's in a better place. To know we can go out and play for her and have a purpose, it's just even better."
The tragedy put basketball on the backburner, and Insell wasn't sure his squad would receive an at-large bid. He placed his hope in comments by the selection committee chairman on valuing a team's work through a season. The Blue Raiders had beaten several conference champs this season, including James Madison and South Dakota State.
They didn't have it in them to pad their resume with wins at the Sun Belt tournament.
The co-champs of the regular season lost in an emotional game with Stewart's home jersey draped over a chair on the bench and her road uniform hanging in the locker room. Lanning said the moment of silence before tipoff was the final draining straw for a team just starting to bounce back from the shocking news.
But they did get a second chance, and Insell said Stewart's play is one reason why. She was one of only two juniors on a roster stocked with 11 freshmen and sophomores.
"There was a game or two that Tina was very instrumental in us winning," Insell said. "We wouldn't have been here if she hadn't showed up in those games."
Now it's onto Auburn, a five-hour drive from Murfreesboro. And Insell and Lanning both expect their fans to be there, rooting them on. They aren't sure if they will place Stewart's jersey on the bench this time around, not yet. But they plan to be ready to play.
"They're not going to forget Tina," Insell said. "Don't get me wrong. But it'll be a different team that shows up than showed up at the Sun Belt Conference tournament."