Tigers Looking to Make Run In WNIT

A report previewing Auburn's WNIT road game features comments from players and Coach Nell Fortner.

Cookeville, Tenn.--Blanche Alverson, the only player to start every game for Auburn this season, says the Tigers would rather be home playing in the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament, but will try to make the best of their appearance in the WNIT.

The sophomore forward from Buford, Ga., goes into Thursday's 7 p.m. game at 23-7 Tennessee Tech as the second leading scorer for Coach Nell Fortner's team. She is averaging 10.5 points per contest and was a major scoring threat earlier in the season when the Tigers were playing their best basketball.

However, Auburn lost six of its last eight games and finished the year 15-15, not good enough to play in the NCAA Tournament the Tigers are hosts for with games on Sunday and Tuesday at the Auburn Arena.

"It is disappointing to not be in the NCAA Tournament, but we are excited about the opportunity to play more basketball," says Alverson.

"We want to use this WNIT as a way to improve our team and get ready for next season," she says. "We have a young team with almost everybody coming back."

Blanche Alverson drives to the basket.

The one senior on the squad, All-SEC guard Alli Smalley, averages 12.1 points per game. She predicts the Tigers will be ready to play against the regular season champions of the Ohio Valley Conference.

"We had a day or two off after the SEC Tournament and then we came back ready to work," Smalley says. "That is what we have been doing. We didn't know who we were going to play so we have been working on a lot of stuff for us--our offense, our defense and just trying to stay in shape and stay sharp."

Getting the Tigers sharp again is the job of Fortner, whose team looked to be on its way to the NCAA Tournament before struggling in the second half of the SEC season. The Tigers finished the season with a 49-47 loss to Mississippi State in the conference tournament. <

"The most important thing to remember is we have five freshmen on this team and they need all of the postseason experience they can get," Fortner says.

"I am really happy we will be able to play in that environment," the coach adds. "We have been to the WNIT?before with that group that won the SEC Championship in 2009 and had a pretty good run in it and then we came back and made the NCAA Tournament the next year, which is always your goal. Hopefully, we can reap the benefits of this opportunity like we did the last time we did it."

Fortner says a key to Auburn's success will be dealing with point guard Tacarra Hayes. She is averaging 16.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.7 steals per game.

Inside the Tigers will need to match up with 6-5 center Brittany Darling, who averages 7.6 points and 6.2 rebounds. That could mean more playing time for 6-5 Auburn freshman Peyton Davis or 6-8 sophomore P.J. West.

Auburn's third leading scorer, forward Jordan Greenleaf, was dismissed from the team during the season and the fourth leading scorer, sophomore point guard Morgan Toles, has missed the last three games with a concussion and has not been cleared to play vs. Tennessee Tech. If Auburn advances past the second round of the WNIT there is a chance Toles may be cleared to play, Fortner says.

"We have lost two starters in the last month so we are having to recover from that," says Fortner, who notes that she is counting on junior forward Chantel Hilliard to help pick up the slack. The junior forward came through with 18 points and 11 rebounds in Auburn's SEC Tournament game.

If the Tigers defeat Tennessee Tech they will play at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Toledo.

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