Coach sets Final Four goal, hopes team has back

Updated: March 13, 2007, 1:42 AM ET
Associated Press

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -- Rick Insell set the bar very high for his Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders on Monday night: Final Four or bust.

That would be a major accomplishment for any team. Middle Tennessee boasts the nation's longest winning streak at 26 straight games, but the Blue Raiders never have advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

So as soon as his national television interview ended, Insell turned to his team: "Now y'all gotta back my mouth up."

Middle Tennessee (29-3) will face No. 12 Gonzaga (24-9) Saturday in Stanford, Calif.

The Blue Raiders made history this season with their first national ranking and finished 17th in the final Associated Press poll. They haven't lost since last Nov. 26 at Knoxville against Tennessee, the No. 1 seed in the Dayton Regional where Middle Tennessee is seeded No. 5.

That matches the highest seeding in school history. The Blue Raiders also were seeded fifth in 1985.

None of the current Blue Raiders mind Insell putting them in the position of having to play up to his words. After all, this is what he predicted when he took over the job nearly two years ago.

"If he's going to run his mouth, then I've got to go out there and bust my butt so he won't look so bad," said senior guard Chrissy Givens, the two-time Sun Belt conference player of the year, defensive player of the year and tournament MVP.

"As long as he runs his mouth, we're going to keep playing and make sure everything comes true."

This is a team that already has played No. 2 seed Maryland and visited Tennessee, Minnesota and Georgia. They lost by five to the defending champion Maryland and Tennessee but beat Old Dominion and won at Georgia.

"We've been through some challenges already this season," Senior forward Krystle Horton said. "That's been the whole season. We're looking forward to it."

Middle Tennessee earned its 11th NCAA berth and fourth straight last week by winning a fourth consecutive Sun Belt tournament championship.

The Blue Raiders reached the NCAA Tournament second round in 2004 and 2005, but Insell had predicted back in January that a No. 4 seed might be in reach for a program enjoying its best season ever.

"Why not dream big?" Insell said. "We began to talk about the Final Four. You know it's not unlikely. ... We're not as big as some teams. But we have big hearts, and we don't quit, and sometimes that's enough."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press