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