HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – The Middle Tennessee women huddled under the basket before their first game in the Sun Belt conference tournament, arms around one another.
As they gathered around strength and conditioning coach Matt Riley for a pregame talk, there were a few nervous looks around, some tears, and eventually a few smiles.
Returning to the court just days after the stabbing death of teammate Tina Stewart, the Blue Raiders muddled through a difficult 77-62 loss to Arkansas State on Sunday.
"Everybody knows what we've gone through," senior Anne Marie Lanning said. "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."
Stewart, 21, of Memphis, was stabbed to death Wednesday night and her 18-year-old roommate, Shanterrica Madden, has been charged with first-degree murder.
The top-seeded Blue Raiders agonized over whether to play in the conference tournament but finally decided Stewart would want them to compete.
"I just felt so much for them, what they're going through," coach Rick Insell said. "They're still children, they're not adults."
Middle Tennessee was clearly off when the game started, making just five of its first 22 shots. The fourth-seeded Red Wolves (18-13) opened on a 15-5 run and never trailed.
The Blue Raiders rallied to tie it at 37 early in the second half, but Arkansas State eventually pulled away.
Insell did his best to treat the game as normal as possible. He walked the court at one point in the second half, left arm extended and pointing toward where sophomore guard Kortni Jones had just committed a turnover. Still, even Insell knew it wasn't a normal game.
"It's hard to jump in one of them's face after the last four or five days," he said.
The Blue Raiders took the court for warmups in black T-shirts with "20tether" on the front and "Stewart" on the back of each. They also each wore purple hair ribbons and painted their fingernails purple because that was Stewart's favorite color.
Middle Tennessee fans offered their support throughout. Alysha Clark, who led the team to the tournament championship a year ago, sat with a group of former teammates directly behind the Blue Raiders' bench.
Clark left her professional team in Israel after hearing about Stewart's death. She flew from Tennessee to Arkansas on Sunday morning with athletic director Chris Massaro to be at the game and support her former teammates.
Also at the game was the Middle Tennessee men's team, including Stewart's boyfriend K.C. Anuna. The men sat together under one of the baskets ahead of their tournament game against Florida International on Sunday night.
With reminders of Stewart all around, the Blue Raiders sat on the bench, heads down and arms locked during a pregame moment of silence. Stewart's home uniform was draped over an empty chair on the sideline, and her blue No. 20 road uniform hung in the team's locker room.
Middle Tennessee's KeKe Stewart was the first reserve to enter the game in the second half. She played five minutes, and each time she was taken out she walked to the end of the sideline and tapped Stewart's empty chair and uniform.
"I'm just so proud of my teammates because I would not want to be on any other team in the nation," Middle Tennessee freshman Ebony Rowe said. "I'm just so proud of us. We didn't fail, because we came and we showed up and we showed what MTSU is all about."
The Blue Raiders' home uniforms included a black patch near the left shoulder with No. 20 in white lettering, and Arkansas State coach Brian Boyer sported a black ribbon on his jacket during the game. Boyer talked with his players about the expected emotions from Middle Tennessee before the game.
With the Red Wolves in control, he even called a timeout with 28 seconds remaining to remind his players to hold off on any celebration until they reached the locker room out of respect to the Blue Raiders.
"I thought that was the right thing to do," Boyer said. "I thought that was the least we could do, was celebrate when we got in the locker room but not out there."
Middle Tennessee had planned to return home if it lost Sunday's game. However, with the school out for spring break, school officials elected to stay at the tournament for an extra night so the Blue Raiders could watch the men's team play in the quarterfinals.
Once they do return home, the players will await news of a possible postseason destination.
"Hopefully, we'll get to go on and play somewhere," Insell said. "If we do, then there's not a doubt in my mind they'll come back strong."