Commentary

Blue Raiders ready for brutal schedule

2-1 Middle Tennessee eager to put painful NCAA tournament loss behind it

Originally Published: November 24, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- Middle Tennessee star Alysha Clark came down with the H1N1 virus at the end of the summer. Her roommate and teammate, Chelsia Lymon, deftly avoided it.

[+] EnlargeAlysha Clark
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireAlysha Clark led Division I in scoring last season (27.5 ppg) and is averaging 28.7 points and 15.3 rebounds this season.

"We had the masks, and I was Lysol-ing everything down," Lymon said, chuckling. "I didn't kick her out the apartment, but I kept her in her room. With all her shoes."

Clark, who led Division I in scoring last season (27.5 ppg), has a fondness for footwear. OK, an obsession. Lymon is one of those people who's so mirthful that you spend much of any conversation with her cracking up. Clark's colossal shoe collection is just one of many topics Lymon can riff about.

"She'll say, 'Chels, if you want to borrow any shoes, just go in my closet and get them,'" Lymon said. "I open up her closet … there are so many, I don't even know where to start. I just close the door and go back in my room."

Meanwhile, another teammate, Jackie Pickel, contacted Clark during the weeklong illness in August and offered support in her typical style.

"I really like to bake a lot," Pickel said. "Anytime somebody is hurt or sick, I'll ask if I can cook for them. When Alysha had the flu, I called and said, 'Well, does your stomach hurt? Because, you know me: I want to bake you something.'"

Indeed, the Blue Raiders do know each other. Very well. There are six seniors on the squad: Clark, Lymon, Pickel, Brandi Brown, Dana Garrett and Shytoria Davis.

"We're all very different," Pickel said. "If it wasn't for basketball, probably none of us would have met or been friends. But that's what is so special about it. On and off the court, we all get along so well."

It will definitely be a special night Wednesday for the senior core of the Blue Raiders: Tennessee is visiting the Murphy Center almost 30 years to the day since the last time coach Pat Summitt brought her team to Murfreesboro. A full house is expected, of course, and the game will be televised in the state.

Tennessee last played MTSU in Murfreesboro on Nov. 26, 1979. Four years before that -- on Jan. 10, 1975 -- Summitt got her first win as Tennessee's head coach; it came against MTSU in Knoxville.

Summitt has done rather well for herself since -- she now has 1,008 victories. Sixteen of those have come against MTSU, which has never beaten Tennessee.

For a long time, the programs didn't face each other. They had played throughout the 1970s and then in 1981 and '84. But they didn't meet again until 2006, a year after coach Rick Insell took over the program at MTSU, his alma mater.

He had been at nearby Shelbyville Central High for 28 seasons, winning 10 state championships and also coaching a successful AAU program. The two SEC schools in the state -- Tennessee and Vanderbilt -- both benefited over the years from his prep/AAU players.

"You're familiar with Coach Insell if you're from anywhere in Tennessee," said Brown, a 6-foot-3 forward from Jamestown, Tenn.

[+] EnlargeDana Garrett
AP Photo/Bill FeigSenior Dana Garrett comes off the bench to average 6.7 points on 59 percent shooting.

Insell started at Shelbyville in the 1970s, when girls were still playing six-on-six basketball in Tennessee. He was hired as an assistant for the boys' team there but also was "forced" to coach the girls. His initial reluctance to do that vanished as soon as he started working with them.

"I saw they were more focused, more intense -- that it meant more to them," he said. "I asked my administrator the next year if I could go full-time with the girls' team. And I haven't looked back."

He did look "forward," though, in 2005 when he moved to the college game.

"I loved Shelbyville, and I wouldn't have coached at any other high school," Insell said. "But I'd gotten in a rut. I was 54 years old, and we'd already won 10 state championships. It was a new challenge to come here. I'd sat back and watched a lot of the college coaches for 30 years. I appreciated what they did.

"And I thought, 'What would it be like to coach against Coach Summitt or someone like Van Chancellor?'"

Insell and the Blue Raiders did the latter a week ago, falling 61-40 to Chancellor's No. 11 LSU team in Baton Rouge. Now they face Summitt -- who is appearing at a fan breakfast along with Insell on Wednesday -- and fifth-ranked Tennessee.

This is how Insell wants it to be: a lot of tough foes in nonconference play. MTSU still has the likes of Xavier, Louisville, South Dakota State and Kentucky (where one of Insell's sons, Matt, is an assistant coach) to play.

The Blue Raiders hope to then win the Sun Belt Conference regular-season and tournament championships and go further than last season in the NCAA tournament.

Ah, yes, last season. The No. 8 seed Blue Raiders, playing on No. 9 seed Michigan State's home court in the first round, led much of the game before falling 60-59. The Spartans went on to upset No. 1 seed Duke and go to the Sweet 16.

Clark had 34 points against Michigan State but fouled out with a minute and a half left and was forced to the bench.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about it," Clark said. "It was a really good game, and they were a good team. But Coach Insell tells us we were leading 39 of the 40 minutes -- and that just makes me want to throw up.

"We played a really good first half, and in the second half they came at us a little harder. That kind of slowed us down. Then to sit and have to watch -- it's so frustrating. You want to be out there so bad."

The one good thing, though, was that the loss didn't end the college careers for these six seniors. They had another season to come back and try to improve on that result. It's the second season at MTSU for Clark, Garrett and Davis. The latter two transferred from junior colleges. Clark came from Nashville's Belmont University, where she was twice named the Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year.

The other three, though, were in Insell's first recruiting class at MTSU. Brown and Pickel are both Tennessee natives, while Lymon is from Kentucky. She went to Scott County High in Georgetown. That's also the alma mater of former Purdue standout Ukari Figgs, who won an NCAA title with the Boilermakers in 1999.

Figgs, who played in the WNBA, is now an assistant coach at Purdue. But for a few years, she was back living in Georgetown as an engineer at Toyota and volunteered to help Lymon.

"We're good friends," Lymon said. "She worked with me my senior year in high school to get my mind prepared for the next level. She had great insight, and I feel lucky to have had her to get advice from."

One part of being a point guard that Lymon didn't need any tutoring about was keeping upbeat.

"I bring laughter to the team, and energy," Lymon said. "I'm always the happy-go-lucky person."

Pickel brings the homemade brownies. Brown brings the books; she already has her degree in accounting and is working on her MBA. Clark, along with that shoe expertise, brings the star power.

(A little later in the season, we'll have more on the 5-10 forward Clark, who keeps on proving that being undersized won't stop her inside. She's averaging 28.7 points and 15.3 rebounds; she made 18 of 22 shots in a win Saturday against Austin Peay.)

And the fifth starter for the Blue Raiders is junior Anne Marie Lanning, who's from Riverdale High in Murfreesboro.

MTSU uses the same up-tempo, pressing style that Insell did all those years at Shelbyville Central. Whether that will work against a team as quick and strong as Tennessee … well, MTSU understands what a titan it's up against. But these are the kinds of games the Blue Raiders love to play.

"I know there are going to be a lot of people here in orange," Brown said of the Tennessee fans who will help fill the Murphy Center. "It's motivating to know that we're the underdog. That's OK. I don't think any goal is too big for this team."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.