MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Soon after winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament to earn a fifth-straight NCAA Tournament berth, the Middle Tennessee women’s basketball team went through the obligatory rituals.
Collect the trophy – check.
Cut down the nets – check.
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Salute fans in attendance – check.
Honor murdered teammate Tina Stewart – check.
This time of year might mean March Madness for NCAA tourney teams, but for the upperclassmen of the Lady Raiders, it also has a strong tinge of March sadness for memories of a life-altering tragedy that will never leave their minds.
Two years ago this month, just before Middle Tennessee was to play in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament and, eventually, the NCAA tourney, junior guard Tina Stewart was murdered in her apartment by roommate Shanterrica Madden, a student at Middle Tennessee not associated with the basketball program.
The horror stunned a community, especially teammates and coaches, who can’t to this day — and never will — get the thoughts of Stewart’s untimely death at age 21 out of their minds.
“I don’t know how many times I have seen those kids right in the middle of practice – I wouldn’t say crying – you could say that they were emotionally spent, and it was about Tina,” Lady Raiders coach Rick Insell said. “I find myself at times thinking, ‘What could we have done? Could we have done anything differently?’ That will never go away.”
Soon after the murder on March 2, 2011, the Lady Raiders lost an emotional opener at the conference tournament, received an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney, and then lost in the first round. Eventually, Madden was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 29 years in prison.
It’s safe to say the 12th-seeded Lady Raiders (25-7), especially upperclassmen who were her teammates, will have Stewart on their minds leading up to playing at fifth-seeded Louisville (24-8) in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament’s Oklahoma City Regional on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. EDT.
“Around this time of year is when it happened, so we definitely think about it,” said Lady Raiders senior guard Kortni Jones, who was a sophomore when the murder occurred.
Thus, the honoring of Stewart after winning the Sun Belt tourney title game this year in Hot Springs, Ark.
“We held up (Stewart’s) No. 20 at the end and broke it down for her,” Jones said. “Coach Insell made a statement before we walked off that floor in Hot Springs that this one was for Tina. It was kind of a coming at peace with the entire situation.”
Going through all that makes playing the 16th-ranked Lady Cardinals on their homecourt at the KFC Yum! Center in downtown Louisville just another hurdle for a program that has played in the NCAA Tournament seven of eight years it has been coached by Insell, a legendary hall-of-fame high school coach who won two national championships and 10 state titles while coaching the storied girls program at nearby Shelbyville (Tenn.) Central.
“It has made us all stronger individually,” said junior forward Ebony Rowe, a top 30 finalist for Naismith Player of the Year after leading the Lady Raiders by averaging a double-double in scoring (19.9 points per game) and rebounding (11.1). She has 52 career double-doubles.
“And then that in turn has made us closer together,” Rowe added. “Once you go through something like that, it prepares you for anything you go through, not just in basketball, but for the rest of your life.
“We always say every time we go on the court for practice or for a game, that it’s for Tina. There is no better motivation and no better thing than to play for your fallen teammate.”
Also motivating Middle Tennessee is having that breakthrough NCAA tourney run to finally cement the program as one of the top mid-majors in the country. On top of five straight NCAA tourney berths and seven in Insell’s eight seasons, the Lady Raiders have played in the NCAA tourney nine of the past 10 seasons.
But despite being seeded as high as No. 5 in 2007, Middle Tennessee has never won two NCAA tourney games in the same year and advanced to the Sweet 16 round. That is a notion not lost on the Lady Raiders.
“We always talk about taking it to the next level,” Rowe said. “We know we can win a conference championship and tournament. We’re tired of that one-and-done feeling. We don’t want to just say we made it to the NCAA Tournament every year. We want to get far into the tournament.”
That won’t come easily playing at Louisville, which has reached the Sweet 16 round three of the last five years, including losing the national championship game in 2009 to Connecticut. Then again, the Lady Raiders went on the road this season and lost overtime games at national powers Tennessee and Iowa.
“We are used to playing in front of big crowds, so it’s really no big deal to us,” Rowe said. “This team can be as good as we want it to be. From day one, we have said we are our worst enemy. When we struggle and play badly, that is usually what we are doing, not what the other team is doing. When we come together and play our roles, I think we can beat anyone in the country.”
And when and if they do, rest assured that the memory of Tina Stewart will always be there for this upperclassmen of Lady Raiders.
“Will it ever go away?” Insell asked about those thoughts of Stewart. “No, it won’t. Those kids, they lived with her. It will never go away with them.
“I tell you what it’s done. It’s educated them about life, because life isn’t fair.”