"The process of deciding was put on the shoulders of this team because this team is so young and we will have eight to nine of the players that contribute, including the starting five, back," Ciampi explains when asked why the Tigers are playing in the 2003 women's NIT after turning down previous offers.
"We had planned on taking a trip in late spring or early summer, but with the situation in the world right now we felt that this would be a better choice to extend the season," Ciampi says. "I thought last week that we had a great week of practice. We are into a tournament season that hopefully will build up our basketball IQ and understanding of tournament play and hopefully open up the door for us next year to be in the NCAAs."
Auburn had planned to make a 12-day, six-game tour of Italy to play some top competition, but that trip has been cancelled.
Auburn is 18-11 overall while South Alabama of the Sun Belt Conference is 19-10. The Tigers have played South Alabama 17 times at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum and won all of those contests. Auburn has won 21 straight games vs. South Alabama and is 34-3 all-time vs. USA. The last USA victory over Auburn was in 1980 and that was prior to the start of NCAA sanctioned women's college basketball.
The last time the two played was on Feb. 16th, 1999 with Auburn winning 89-50. However, Ciampi says to expect a much tougher game in 2003. The Lady Jaguars pounded Auburn's SEC rival Alabama 79-57 and Auburn split its two games vs. the Tide.
"South Alabama is a very well-coached team," Ciampi says. "Offensively, they value every possession. They do a great job in terms of driving the ball to the basket to look to score. If that opportunity is broken down, they will pitch it back for an uncontested shot. They have shot more threes than most teams and they have a great shooting percentage with (Taneisha) Russell, (Qiana) Mitchell and (Sara) Carter shooting a majority of them."
Tia Miller is a key player for the Tigers.
Ciampi also says that Coach Rick Pietri's team is athletic. "On defense, they do an outstanding job of playing the man, sagging and extending and taking away the paint, forcing you to lose your patience and they just keep attacking you defensively. They are a quick team, a team with five people that are as quick as anyone we have played this year. It will be an interesting challenge."
South Alabama, which finished 10-5 in its conference, is led by 5-11 senior forward Taneisha Russell, who averages 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. The only starter on the USA team any taller than Russell is 6-0 sophomore forward Genevieve Delk so Auburn will have a big height advantage vs. the South Alabama's lineup that features three guards who stand 5-10, 5-9, and 5-1.
The Tigers will start 6-4 center Mandisha Stevenson (7.2 points, 6.1 rebounds), 6-2 forward Tia Miller (9.4 points, 5.7) rebounds and 6-0 forward Le'Coe Willingham (9.7 points, 6.2) rebounds across the front line. Willingham has battled through a shoulder injury and won the respect of Ciampi for her toughness.
At guard, the Tigers feature leading scorer Natasha Brackett, a 5-9 left-hander averaging 16.2 points per game and 4.4 rebounds. Point guard Nicole Louden, a 5-7 sophomore, is averaging 4.1 points per contest. Off the bench six-foot-six freshman center Marita Payne is averaging 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds.
Ciampi says he really wanted to take his team to Europe, but says that trip won't be made. He adds that the women's NIT can be a good alternative and says the Tigers have had excellent practices since returning home from the SEC Tournament where they were eliminated by 12th-ranked Mississippi State 65-56 on March 2nd. "It's been a big plus in getting to know the players a little bit more and understanding what tournament play is all about," he says.
The Tigers have three seniors on this year's team--5-10 forward LaKeisha Johnson (4.3 points per game, 4.4 rebounds), 6-4 center Crispina Correria (2.4 points, 1.4 rebounds) and 6-2 forward Kerdu Arbet (0.6 points, 1.0 rebounds).
In addition to Payne, the Tiers have three other freshmen. Dani Kubik (3.1 points, 2.4 rebounds) is a 6-3 center, Nitasha Brown is a 5-8 guard (2.4 points, 1.6 assists) and Lee Durant 0.9 points, 0.3 assists) is a 5-9 guard. Sophomore reserves include 6-1 guard Louise Emeagi (3.2 points, 1.3 rebounds) and 5-6 guard Tiffany Presley (1.0 point, 0.2 assists). Junior reserves include former point guard starter Nancy Derrick (4.1 points, 3.3 assists) and 6-0 forward Dayana Lorza (2.2 points, 2.1 rebounds).