MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders break the huddle with their fingers forming into the shapes of a "2'' and a "0," and a word they use still is "together."
In memory of Tina Stewart.
It's been two years since Stewart, a junior, was stabbed to death at her off-campus apartment just before the conference tournament. Her former roommate was convicted of second-degree murder last July. The Blue Raiders still remember Stewart, and they want to honor her by trying to add another NCAA tournament win to the program's resume.
"Losing one of our teammates my freshman year was the toughest thing I think any of us have had to go through," junior forward Ebony Rowe said.
"And any time we step on that court, we break our hands down and we say 'Together on 3 for T,' which is for Tina. We play every game for her. We never forget. Even this last championship we wanted to win for her. Now this tournament is for her. We really need to do this for our teammate."
Senior guard Kortni Jones thinks that bond of togetherness is this team's greatest strength, and the Blue Raiders hope that can help as they make a school-record fifth straight appearance in the tournament and 16th overall. Making the tournament is expected at Middle Tennessee and the focus now is winning the first NCAA game since 2007 with a win over Gonzaga.
Getting another NCAA win this year won't be easy with 12th-seeded Middle Tennessee (25-7) playing No. 5 seed Louisville on Sunday on the Cardinals' home court. But they know they will have plenty of fan support on hand with Louisville approximately a three-hour drive away.
"We're tired of being one and done because it's been that way the past few years," senior forward Icelyn Elie said. "So we're hoping to change that this year."
This team has grown so much since that Stewart's tragic death in 2012. The Blue Raiders played in the Sun Belt Conference tournament three days after her death with her road jersey draped over a chair on the bench and lost. Given an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament, the pain remained too fresh as they lost 56-41 to Georgia.
They were close to home last year as an at-large team in the NCAA tournament but lost to Vanderbilt in Nashville.
Coach Rick Insell has a much more mature team with three seniors and five juniors. They have won seven straight games, including a fifth straight Sun Belt regular season title along with their first tournament title since 2010.
Insell prepped them for the NCAA tournament with a non-conference schedule featuring overtime losses at Iowa (69-63) and at Tennessee (88-81) in November. They beat Xavier 63-48 in December but lost 68-46 at then-No. 7 Kentucky. His seniors got the chance to play at Louisville as freshmen too.
"I really feel better about this team than just about any team I've had since I've been here, and I don't mind taking them anywhere," Insell said.
This will be the last time the Blue Raiders represent the Sun Belt before Middle Tennessee moves to Conference USA in July. Insell reminded them at practice Monday that there's only one way to take the program to a new level — by winning.
"He says that's all talk until you put actions behind it," Rowe said. "So we feel like it's the perfect opportunity. We have the maturity and leadership on this team. ... We've played together. We know we can get into the tournament. Now we want to make a run."
Jones said she and her fellow seniors have talked about whether or not their teammates will continue honoring Stewart once they leave. New players hear about what happened and have helped remember Stewart at her birthday and on March 2, the anniversary of her death.
"It just comes with being part of the program, something that's always going to be a part of Middle Tennessee," Jones said. "And I think all the women that come in to play here are more than excited to be part of something so special."
Follow Teresa M. Walker on Twitter at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker