Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell could tell during the five-hour bus ride to the NCAA tournament in Auburn, Ala., that his players were starting to heal.
“On the way down here,” Insell said, “they laughed.”
And yes, that is a big deal.
Players who have gone through the raw emotions of a young teammate’s violent death are back doing things they’d normally do, like laughing and playing basketball.
The 11th-seeded Blue Raiders (23-7) open the NCAA tournament today against No. 6 seed Georgia (21-10) at the Auburn Regional, 18 days after the stabbing death of junior guard Tina Stewart and eight since the team traveled to Memphis for her funeral.
Stewart’s roommate, Shanterrica Madden, 18, is charged with first-degree murder in her March 2 death, and is out on $100,000 bond.
So yes, Insell loved hearing them laugh.
“That doesn’t mean a whole lot to people sitting in here, but to the people of Middle Tennessee State that means a lot,” Insell said Saturday. “Will they ever be back to normal? No. On the way down, you could hear them from the back of the bus talking and picking with each other and that was a good feeling from the head coach to hear that.”
A week of spring break with families helped the healing process along for a team that has taken the court only once since her death, struggling in a loss to Arkansas State to open the Sun Belt tournament.
“I think we’ve moved on,” senior guard Anne Marie Lanning said. “We haven’t forgotten about Tina, and she’s still a part of us, but we’ve moved on and we’ve been working hard for this past week.”
The Sun Belt tournament scene was packed with emotion. A pre-game moment of silence, a seat on the bench draped in Stewart’s road jersey and a picture flashing on the screen.
Maybe it was a little too much for a still-fragile team.
They have patches on their warmup shirts honoring Stewart, who started half the games. Middle Tennessee had thought the NCAA wouldn’t allow them on the jerseys but got a clarification that they could Saturday.
The team managers had “20gether” — 20 was Stewart’s number — on the front of their T-shirts in practice Saturday, with “Stewart” on the back.
Kentucky forward Victoria Dunlap leads the Wildcats in scoring at 17 points per game.
She also shines before the game as Dunlap sang the national anthem before senior night at the Wildcats’ final home game Feb. 24.
On Friday, she surprised teammate A’dia Mathies at Kentucky’s news conference at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., by singing her a soulful rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
“I don’t do that very often,” Dunlap said of singing the national anthem. “That was a one-time thing. Well, I might do it again later on in life. But that was the first time I did that, so I was pretty nervous. But playing basketball is pretty easy to do.”
She had 13 points and 12 rebounds in the 66-62 overtime win over Hampton on Saturday.