After the death of a friend or family member, it’s natural to turn to a diversion to try to separate from reality. Sports fall under that category, and they can be an outlet to release bottled-up emotions. They can serve as a detachment.
But what if sports offer a constant reminder of that loved one, if memories of the departed are ignited because of a game? (See related story below.)
That’s what the Middle Tennessee State women’s basketball team faces. On March 2, Tina Stewart was stabbed to death — allegedly by her roommate — in her off-campus apartment in Murfreesboro.
Stewart, 21, was a junior guard from Memphis. Just hours before her death, she’d had the best practice of her life, MTSU head coach Rick Insell said.
Four days after her death, the Blue Raiders stepped back onto the court. With purple ribbons in their hair to honor Stewart’s favorite color and their teammate’s jersey number 20 patched onto their uniforms, Middle Tennessee State took a 77-62 loss to Arkansas State in the opening round of the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
“It was really tough. Our first practice was tough with trying to get back into our routine,” senior Anne Marie Lanning said. “I just really don’t think we got back into our normal routine and then trying to play our first game without her. The whole week was emotional, and I think we were emotionally drained.”
On Monday, the Blue Raiders find out if their season continues. With a 23-7 record, which includes a 14-3 mark in conference play, MTSU hopes to receive an at-large bid for the NCAA Women’s Tournament.
The Blue Raiders have an RPI of 39, and their strength of schedule ranks 93rd in the country. Plus, three of their four non-conference losses, which were to Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Kentucky and Xavier, were against top-25 RPI teams.
If the Blue Raiders don’t make it, they most likely will receive an invitation to compete in the WNIT. Either way, they’ll try to move forward and play basketball, which won’t be easy.
“We’re just trying to put in our minds that this is what Tina would want us to do, and she would want us to go on and play,” Lanning said. “That is our motivation — that we would be making her proud.”
Added Insell: “I think they’ll play with Tina the rest of their lives.”
Stewart averaged 5.5 points for the Blue Raiders, making 14 starts in 28 games. Without Stewart against Arkansas State, Lanning said a “spark” was missing.
“What you want is when you substitute, you want to become a better basketball team,” Insell said. “With Tina coming off [the bench], she gave us a different dimension. She came off with leadership, she came off with quickness, she came off with toughness, and that made us a better team.”
Now someone else will have to step up and fill the hole Stewart left behind, and as with anything, the Blue Raiders must move forward.
“Do I think about the situation? Yes. But I’ve got to go on, and they do too,” Insell said. “It’s tough, but that’s the way life is.”
When tragedy comes
The Middle Tennessee State women’s basketball team isn’t the first college program confronted with the death of a teammate during the season. Others have provided unforgettable moments in honoring the memory of a teammate and inspired many with their return to competition.
A look at some similar circumstances:
• Loyola Marymount basketball (1990): The nation’s leading scorer and rebounder as a junior, Hank Gathers was projected as an NBA lottery pick as he neared the end of his senior season. Roughly seven minutes into a conference tournament quarterfinal game, moments after he completed an alley-oop dunk, Gathers collapsed and died due to complications from a heart muscle disorder.
Five days after Gathers’ funeral, LMU began play in the NCAA tournament. It reached the Elite Eight with three victories as teammate Bo Kimble attempted his first free throw of each game left-handed in memory of Gathers’ unorthodox style.
• Connecticut football (2009): Cornerback Jasper Howard was stabbed to death outside a university-sanctioned dance in the early hours of a Sunday morning.
A week later, the Huskies played at West Virginia, where the opposing fans gave them a lengthy ovation as they took the field. Players from each team shared handshakes and hugs before the contest, and all wore commemorative stickers on their helmets. Connecticut lost 28-24.
• Virginia women’s lacrosse (2010): A player, Yeardley Love, was killed in an alleged altercation with a former boyfriend, a member of the men’s lacrosse team, roughly three weeks before her scheduled graduation.
The Cavaliers’ next game was two weeks later, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. They defeated Towson State 14-12, their first NCAA victory in three years. Their season ended a week later with a second-round defeat.
• Bluffton baseball (2007): Five players (and two others) were killed when the team’s bus accidentally drove off an overpass in Atlanta while en route to a tournament in Florida. The team canceled games for the next two weeks but eventually resumed competition. It lost its first game 10-5 but won the following day, and finished the season 5-19 overall.