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
Pay $0 fees to buy or sell stock. No hidden fees. Start today.