Blue Raiders land 2nd straight NCAA at-large berth

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Middle Tennessee is heading into the NCAA tournament expecting a much different outcome than a year ago.

Last year the grief-stricken Blue Raiders mourned the stabbing death of teammate Tina Stewart and huddled at their coach's house to hear of an at-large berth that turned into a first-round loss.

Monday night they danced and celebrated with about 350 fans at their second straight at-large berth, capping a Sun Belt season dedicated to Stewart.

No. 10 seed Middle Tennessee will play Sunday at seventh-seeded Vanderbilt in the Fresno region. These teams are separated by about 45 miles but haven't played since 1992.

''It's been tough all year,'' coach Rick Insell said. ''No one really knows what these young ladies have come through. A lot of it's been behind the scenes, but there's been a lot of weeping and there's been a lot of hugging and there's been a lot of camaraderie. This team is very close, very close from what they've been through.''

While mourning Stewart, who was stabbed to death March 2, 2011, in her off-campus apartment, the Blue Raiders also set a goal of a 15th overall NCAA tournament berth and fourth straight.

They did it by going 26-6 and a perfect 16-0 in winning the Sun Belt Conference regular-season title. Their 20-game winning streak ended in the tournament championship in a one-point overtime loss to Arkansas-Little Rock. That left them waiting and hoping for the program's third at-large berth overall.

''Now they can go in and they can play in this tournament, and they're very deserving of that because it's been a tough year for us,'' Insell said. ''I want you to know - a very tough year.''

Middle Tennessee lost 56-41 to Georgia in the lone NCAA tournament game last year with the Blue Raiders emotionally drained after two challenging weeks.

Stewart would have been the only senior to play regularly this season. So the Blue Raiders, led by three juniors, pulled together. Stewart's roommate is due to go on trial for first-degree murder in the case May 7, and sophomore forward Ebony Rowe said people forget that they're still dealing with the loss.

''It's not on the news anymore, but it's still real to us,'' Rowe said. ''When it was her birthday, we all wrote on balloons and wrote messages to her as a team and let them go. It's still really real, and we deal with it one day at a time. But we have grown so close as a team, and I think that's one thing that keeps us so close. Other teams don't have that.''

That toughness showed this season as the Blue Raiders won at Xavier and also beat then-No. 6 Kentucky 70-58 in matching the biggest win in the program's history. Junior Icelyn Elie said after what they've gone through, they just believe in each other's strength.

''The majority of the time we go out to play we think about Tina,'' Elie said. ''We don't forget about it. We just go out and play hard for her as well.''

Now they get a chance to continue playing for Stewart.

Insell gathered his team at the school's Hall of Fame building as they have in their previous NCAA berths during his tenure. Before the selection show started, the Blue Raiders went outside and danced with the pep band. It was a festive mood that couldn't have been more different than a year ago.

When Middle Tennessee's name popped up, everyone cheered and celebrated since nobody knew what the committee might do.

''Once we saw our name pop up there, it is a relief,'' Rowe said. ''Our hard season paid off for us.''

Now the Blue Raiders will play their third straight Southeastern Conference opponent in the NCAA tournament. They lost to Mississippi State 68-64 in 2010 as a No. 10 seed, and they will play Vanderbilt (22-9) for the first time since 1992. Middle Tennessee leads the series 10-7 and won the first six, nine of the first 10.

The Commodores didn't look as happy to see their opponent as Middle Tennessee was. The Blue Raiders sold 500 tickets before the rest of the bracket was announced.

Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said in a gathering in Nashville that she is just happy to be hosting for the second time in her 10-year tenure.

Commodores junior forward Tiffany Clarke said she's real excited about this matchup.

''It is one of those that I guarantee they've wanted for a long time, we've wanted for a long time,'' Clarke said.

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