Coach Joe Ciampi takes his veteran 22nd-ranked Auburn team to Boulder, Colorado on Thursday and on Friday night they will tangle with 15th-ranked Notre Dame at the Women's Basketball Coaches Association Classic. Tipoff time is 7 p.m. on Friday. Host Colorado will take on Ole Dominion in the other half of the doubleheader. The winners meet for the championship on Saturday night and the losers play in a consolation game.
"We are excited about having an opportunity to be invited to the tournament and that is because of our success last year," says Ciampi, whose team won its final five games to take the WNIT title.
"We have been totally focused because we know we are playing Notre Dame, who we know is an outstanding team," Ciampi says. "Hopefully, we will be playing the winner of the Colorado-Old Dominion game. That is where we want to be at this time of the season because we have a mature team that knows the direction it wants to go. We don't want to have any false impressions when we finish this coming weekend."
Notre Dame returns four starters from a team that reached the NCAA Sweet 16 last season and finished 21-11. Auburn was 23-11 last season and returns all five starters, but senior center Tia Miller is out of action with a knee injury and not scheduled to be back for several weeks.
The Tigers have an exhibition victory over Premier Players, winning 100-68 last Friday. Notre Dame defeated Northwest Sports 85-65 and Team Concept 78-45 in exhibition games.
Auburn is expected to start two seniors and three juniors. Mandisa Stevenson, a 6-4 senior, is scheduled to start at center. She averaged 7.0 points and 5.8 rebounds last season. Joining her inside is 6-0 senior power forward Le'Coe Willingham (9.6 points, 6.2 rebounds) and 6-1 junior Louise Emeagi (4.3 points, 1.9 rebounds).
Le'Coe Willingham scores inside vs. Premier Players in last week's exhibition game.
At the two guard, junior Natasha Brackett averaged 16.4 points and 4.4 rebounds last season. Junior Nicole Louden, a 5-9 point guard, rounds out the starting lineup. She averaged 4.8 points and 1.4 assists
"We are thinking we have a nine-player rotation we are going to use," says Ciampi, who will have three returnees and one newcomer playing roles off the bench. Senior guard Nancy Derrick (3.4 points, 1.7 rebounds) is a former starter. Marita Payne is a 6-5 sophomore center, who averaged 4.6 points and 3.2 rebounds last season. Nitasha Brown is a 5-8 sophomore guard who averaged 2.1 points and 1.1 rebounds last season, but has picked up her level of play significantly in the preseason.
Junior college transfer Tanesheia Thompson, a five-foot-six guard from Handley High in Roanoke, helped Gulf Coast Community College of Panama City, Fla., to the junior college national title last season.
Miller, who averaged 9.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, is rehabbing her knee and will have to sit out.
"Notre Dame is brining back four starters and they are a big team on the inside, especially (Jacqueline) Batteas," Ciampi says. "She is 6-2 and does everything for them on the inside and outside. We are going to have to neutralize her and try to dominate their guards and take advantage of our guards and hopefully be in a position where we can out-quick them up and down the floor."
In the other half of the doubleheader, host Colorado was 24-8 last season and a Sweet 16 team. Old Dominion was 21-11 and fell in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Auburn's home opener is at 4:45 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 21 in a doubleheader with the men's team. The AU women will play Stetson while the men's team will play Western Kentucky.