AUBURN, Ala. — Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell could tell during the five-hour bus ride to the NCAA tournament that his players were starting to heal.
"On the way down here," Insell said, "they laughed."
And yes, that is a big deal.
Players who have gone through the raw emotions of a young teammate's violent death are back doing things they'd normally do, like laughing and playing ball.
The 11th-seeded Blue Raiders (23-7) open the NCAA tournament Sunday night against No. 6 seed Georgia (21-10) at the Auburn Regional, 18 days after the stabbing death of junior guard Tina Stewart and eight since the team traveled to Memphis for her funeral.
No. 3 seed Florida State (23-7) faces 14th-seeded Samford (25-7) in the first game Sunday.
Then, Middle Tennessee and Georgia take the court.
Stewart's roommate, Shanterrica Madden, 18, is charged with first-degree murder in her March 2 death, and is out on $100,000 bond.
So yes, Insell loved hearing them laugh.
"That doesn't mean a whole lot to people sitting in here but to the people of Middle Tennessee State that means a lot," Insell said Saturday. "Will they ever be back to normal? No. On the way down, you could hear them from the back of the bus talking and picking with each other and that was a good feeling from the head coach to hear that."
A week of spring break with families helped the healing process along for a team that has only taken the court once since her death, struggling in a loss to Arkansas State to open the Sun Belt tournament.
"I think we've moved on," senior guard Anne Marie Lanning said. "We haven't forgotten about Tina, and she's still a part of us, but we've moved on and we've been working hard for this past week."
The Sun Belt tournament scene was packed with emotion. A pre-game moment of silence, a seat on the bench draped in Stewart's road jersey and a picture flashing on the screen.
Maybe it was a little too much for a still-fragile team.
They have patches on their warmup shirts honoring Stewart. Middle Tennessee had thought the NCAA wouldn't allow them on the jerseys but got a clarification that they could Saturday. Associate athletic director Diane Turnham said that would be up to the players.
"In my mind, whether that patch is on their uniform or on their shooting shirt is irrelevant because no doubt they will be playing for Tina Stewart and themselves," Turnham said. "She and her family are still so much a part of us."
Turnham said Stewart's family was planning to attend and had tickets waiting for them. Probably some purple, Stewart's favorite color, will be part of the players' ensemble.
The team managers had "20gether" — 20 was Stewart's number — on the front of their T-shirts in practice Saturday, with "Stewart" on the back.
Georgia's Jasmine James can feel the Blue Raiders' pain if not fully grasp it. The Memphis native played with or against many of Middle Tennessee's players in AAU ball and faced Stewart on the court starting as ninth-graders, though she didn't know her well.
"It's a terrible thing to happen," James said. "I can't say I can completely feel how they feel, because I'm not in that position.
"I have talked to a few of their players over the past few weeks. As of late, they seem to be doing much better."
But Georgia coach Andy Landers knows the bond that players develop when they practice, travel, hang out and play together. When one is suddenly gone, it leaves a void he can't measure firsthand.
"I can only imagine it," Landers said. "I'm sure that in imagining that, that I don't even come close. Just from an individual standpoint, I know how close and how I feel for and about each one of our players. To have one of them taken away, would be very close to losing a family member. It would be a very difficult thing to go through."
For all that, the Blue Raiders, co-champions of the Sun Belt Conference, aren't hoping to just be a sad, heart-tugging storyline for this tournament. They'd love to win and upset a Southeastern Conference power that struggled down the stretch during only their second trip as an at-large team, and 14th overall.
"We plan on winning. We haven't talked about losing," Insell said. "Our whole intent was to come down and win this tournament."
The Bulldogs have lost four of their last five, including two defeats to Tennessee by a combined 51 points.
Both teams are young. While Middle Tennessee has 11 freshmen and sophomores on a 14-player roster, Georgia starts freshmen guard Khaalidah Miller and sophomores James and Anne Marie Armstrong.
In the regional opener, the Seminoles are making a school-record seventh straight trip to the NCAA tournament after making it to the round of 8 last season. Their run was ended with a 90-50 loss to eventual champion Connecticut.
The Bulldogs earned their first berth by winning the Southern Conference tournament.
FSU coach Sue Semrau showed her team video from the lone previous meeting with Samford, in 2007, when current seniors Courtney Ward and Christian Hunnicutt were freshmen. The Seminoles survived 52-51 only on Jacinta Monroe's tip-in at the buzzer to cap a 14-point comeback.
"It came down to a final shot and really a rebound off of the final shot that gave us the win over Samford," FSU coach Sue Semrau said. "It was not an easy game."
Led by Emily London, Samford is one of the nation's top five free-throw and 3-point shooting teams.
Florida State counters with the muscle of 6-foot-4 forward Cierra Bravard and shutdown perimeter defender Christian Hunnicutt.
Samford coach Mike Morris was an assistant on the men's team during its two NCAA tournament trips before taking over the now 14-year-old women's program.
He has tried to keep his players from adopting the just-happy-to-be-here mentality.
"We're going to hang a couple of banners, we're going to get rings," Morris said he told his team. "Now, we're on the national stage. What kind of impression are we going to leave?"