Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell likes to set lofty goals for his team. With a player like Chrissy Givens, those goals might be attainable.
Givens, the two-time Sun Belt conference player of the year, leads the fifth-seeded Blue Raiders into their first-round matchup with No. 12 seed Gonzaga on Saturday at Stanford, Calif.
This is the fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance for Middle Tennessee (29-3), which has never advanced past the second round. Last year, the Blue Raiders earned a No. 12 seed and fell to No. 5 seed Utah 76-71 in their opener.
Insell, though, believes this year could be different. Middle Tennessee is riding a 26-game winning streak—longest in the nation—since a Nov. 26 loss at perennial power Tennessee. The run helped the Blue Raiders match the highest seeding in their history, and has had their coach predicting a Final Four appearance since January.
“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.”
Givens is the biggest reason for Insell’s optimism. The senior guard is averaging 29.4 points over the last five games, including a Sun Belt tournament-record 85 in three contests. She had 33 points, four assists and three steals in the March 6 title game, leading Middle Tennessee past Louisiana-Lafayette 77-67 for its fourth straight conference tournament championship.
“If (Insell)’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,” Givens said. “As long as he runs his mouth, we’re going to keep playing and make sure everything comes true.”
After averaging 21.5 points en route to Sun Belt player of the year honors as a junior, Givens posted even better numbers this season, with 22.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game to go along with a 51.5 field-goal percentage. She also leads the team in assists and steals, and was named league defensive player of the year in addition to winning her second straight overall conference award.
“If you could buy stock in Chrissy Givens, you’d get wealthy,” Insell said.
“To have the target on your back all year and still come out and have your best games in big games? I don’t know if we’ll ever see another Chrissy Givens come through Middle Tennessee.”
This is the first meeting between the Blue Raiders and the Bulldogs (24-9), who enter Saturday’s game on an impressive run of their own. Gonzaga has won nine straight and 17 of 18, including a 64-47 victory over Loyola Marymount on March 4 that gave the team its first West Coast Conference tournament title and put it in the field of 64 for the first time.
Senior forward Stephanie Hawk averages 14.7 points to lead the Bulldogs, while freshman Heather Bowman adds 13.2 in a versatile offense that had a different leading scorer in all three games of the WCC tournament.
“I’m really proud of our basketball team,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. “We played a style that we’re not always comfortable with—a knock-down, drag-out, tough battle. We showed we can play that way. If you punch us in the nose, we’ll punch back.”
The winner of Saturday’s contest will face No. 4 seed Ohio State or No. 13 Marist in Monday’s second round.