A tough team going through tough times

In a state where there is such a dominant national women's basketball power, Middle Tennessee still has been able to establish a place for itself in the sport.

There are eight national championship trophies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a program expected to get another NCAA No. 1 seed soon. And Vanderbilt, in Nashville, has long had a respectable tradition that includes a Final Four appearance.

Yet Middle Tennessee is still very relevant in the state and in the sport as a whole. The Blue Raiders have a program that many schools from "big" conferences might avoid scheduling, because they know how good Middle Tennessee is.

This is a tough team at tournament time, one that typically doesn't get quite the same level of talent as the state's two SEC schools, but that has its own legacy, loyal fan base, and a coach who knows the tradition of his state's women's and girls' basketball history by heart.

But Rick Insell's heart Thursday has to feel heavier than probably at any time in his decades-long coaching career. He's dealing with a nightmare scenario: One of his players, Tina Stewart, was killed Wednesday night. And somehow, though likely still shrouded in a fog of agony and disbelief, Middle Tennessee will return to the court again Sunday in the Sun Belt tournament in Hot Springs, Ark.

The Blue Raiders (23-6) are the top-seeded team from the East Division, and were looking to clinch their 14th NCAA tournament trip by winning the league tourney and automatic bid.

Now, though, just being able to get through a game four days after losing a beloved teammate -- especially in so shocking a manner -- will be asking a tremendous amount of these young women.

To think just a year ago, Middle Tennessee had a magical Sun Belt tournament experience thanks largely to an epic three-game performance from then senior Alysha Clark.

She scored 40 points in the Sun Belt quarterfinals, 44 in the semis and 48 in the championship game against Arkansas-Little Rock -- including the winning basket with 1.8 seconds left in overtime. She shot 61.5 percent from the field and 83.3 percent from the line in those three games, in which she also totaled 43 rebounds.

There has simply never been a better league tournament performance by an individual in the history of women's college basketball. For what was then a squad led by six close-knit seniors, that Sun Belt tournament always will be a memory to cherish.

This season, despite the graduation of so much talent, Middle Tennessee is 14-2 in the conference, with both losses on the road: at Florida International and UALR. The Blue Raiders' four losses in nonconference play are all very respectable: against Arkansas and Kentucky of the SEC, Georgia Tech of the ACC, and Atlantic 10 champion Xavier, currently ranked No. 6 in the nation.

That loss to the Musketeers was the only defeat this season that Middle Tennessee has suffered at home at the Murphy Center. The Blue Raiders have had a notable home-court advantage since Insell took over in 2005. There are some followers who've rarely missed a game in the program's entire history, but Insell really was instrumental in boosting attendance.

Insell is a native of Murfreesboro -- home of the Tennessee prep basketball tournaments -- and a graduate of Middle Tennessee. He was one of the winningest high school girls' basketball coaches in the nation for three decades, capturing 10 state titles at Shelbyville Central and sending many players on to college careers.

He had done everything possible as a prep coach when he decided at age 54 that it was time to go to the college ranks and take over at his alma mater. There have been mostly very good times for Insell with the Blue Raiders, as his success has continued in Division I.

But he's now facing something that's difficult to even comprehend. A 21-year-old junior with her whole life ahead of her is gone after a horrifying act of violence. There is no way any coach can possibly be prepared to deal with this -- to go through his own sadness at losing someone who was like a daughter to him, while also trying to comfort and guide his players.

However, if there is one thing that Middle Tennessee does have to hold on to, though, it's a sense of community. This is a women's basketball program that truly does matter to the city of Murfreesboro and the school's alumni. There are a lot of people who are grieving Stewart, who feel a personal loss with her death, and who will want to help her devastated teammates get through this.

The thoughts of all the women's basketball world are also with them.

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