Middle Tennessee received a rare at-large bid out of the Sun Belt Conference for a spot in the field of 64 -- a bright spot in the heartbreaking month it has had to endure.
Playing to honor slain teammate Tina Stewart, the 11th-seeded Lady Raiders open play in the NCAA tournament against sixth-seeded Georgia at Auburn Arena on Sunday night.Middle Tennessee (23-7) was well on its way to earning a 14th NCAA bid after winning the Sun Belt's East Division for the third consecutive season. Basketball was the last thing on the Lady Raiders' minds, however, after Stewart was stabbed to death in her off-campus apartment March 2.The junior guard's roommate, Shanterrica Madden, has been charged with first-degree murder, and she is scheduled to return to Murfreesboro on March 24 for a preliminary hearing after being freed on $100,000 bond Friday.The top-seeded Lady Raiders contemplated skipping the conference tournament, but just four days after Stewart's passing, lost 77-62 to Arkansas State in the second round. Middle Tennessee players wore a black No. 20 patch on their jerseys and purple hair ribbons with purple fingernails to honor their teammate."Everybody knows what we've gone through," said senior guard Anne Marie Lanning, an All-Sun Belt Conference selection averaging 13.4 points and 4.5 assists. "Emotionally, it's been tough, but we knew we wanted to go out there and play for 'T.' And so we just went out there and gave it our all."I just know she would be proud of us."Eight days after attending Stewart's funeral in Memphis, the Lady Raiders will get another chance to win one for their teammate after earning the school's second at-large bid to the NCAAs. Middle Tennessee has lost three straight NCAA tournament games, the last two coming in the first round in 2010 and 2009."These kids deserve it," coach Rick Insell said. "What they've been through these last 10, 12 days, I don't know. It's been the toughest thing I've ever had to endure since I've been in coaching, and I'm sure it's the toughest thing they'll ever have to endure. I'm proud of them. I'm just proud of them."Despite the heavy hearts, Georgia coach Andy Landers expects a tough test against the Lady Raiders."They're legit. There isn't any question about that," he told the school's official website. "I know they've pretty much dominated their conference the last three or four years. They have been a truly dominant team in their league. Offensively, they're always good."The Lady Bulldogs (21-10) haven't been lately, shooting 35.9 percent while dropping four of five. Georgia went 21 of 63 (33.3 percent) from the field in an 82-58 loss to Tennessee in the SEC tournament semifinals March 5.Georgia, which has six players averaging between 6.8 and 12.1 points, makes its 17th consecutive tournament appearance.It will be the last for senior forward Porsha Phillips, an All-SEC pick averaging 11.1 points and 10.8 boards. Looking to become the first Lady Bulldog to average a double-double since Katrina McClain in 1986-87, Phillips could match up with Sun Belt freshman of the year Ebony Rowe, who is scoring 17.4 points per game with 10.3 rebounds.Georgia has won 11 of 12 versus Middle Tennessee but lost 70-62 at home in the last matchup Dec. 7, 2006.The winner faces No. 3 seed Florida State or 14th-seeded Samford on Tuesday.