The Tigers, 21-8 overall, are the seventh seed in the East Regional that is being played at the Arena at Harbor Yard. Tipoff time is set for 6 p.m. Central as the Tigers meet the Wolfpack for the first time in school history.
For the Tigers, this is their 16th trip to the NCAA Tournament where they have posted a 27-15 all-time record. AU hasn't played a game since March 5th when the Tigers lost 76-74 to Vanderbilt in the quarter-finals of the SEC Tournament in Nashville. Vandy won the game on a controversial call in the closing seconds and went on to take the tournament title.
Coach Joe Ciampi says he hopes his team will play with the attitude they have something to prove after receiving a surprisingly low seventh seed despite finishing third in the SEC regular season and posting a good record vs. a strong schedule. All four SEC teams who played on Saturday in the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament advanced to round two.
Senior Nancy Derrick says her team feels slighted, but adds that the Tigers will have to prove their worth on the court.
"We are maybe a little disappointed, but regardless of where you are seeded you are always going to have to play someone good," she says. "So, we might as well get those games started early.
"I think the most disappointing thing about where we were seeded is because we kind of felt like we deserved better," Derrick adds. "Not just that we got sent to Connecticut, but that we finished third in the conference and with seven teams from the SEC in the Tournament we are seeded second to last out of our conference teams. I think that shows that people don't have that much respect for us."
Derrick says the Tigers have had good practices preparing for the tournament. If Auburn gets by N.C. State on Sunday, the Tigers are likely to run into defending national champion UConn in round two on Tuesday with the Huskies playing in their home state. Derrick, a 5-9 forward, averages 3.7 points and 3.5 rebounds per game.
All-SEC forward Le'Coe Willingham is Auburn's key player. She leads the team in scoring at 16.4 points per game and in rebounds at 9.2
"For a young lady of her size, she has maxed out her ability in terms of doing everything we can ask for her defensively, yet she is scoring and rebounding in double figures," Ciampi says. "Plus, she is the leader every day in practice. She is anything you can ask for from a coaching standpoint. She has maxed out her potential for us."
Auburn's third senior starter is 6-4 center Mandisa Stevenson, who is averaging 8.9 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest.
The Tigers start a pair of juniors at guard. Natasha Brackett is averaging 12.3 points and 3.7 rebounds. Nicole Louden, who handles the point, is averaging 7.6 points and 4.3 assists.
Junior Louise Emeagi, a 6-1 forward, adds a spark off the bench with averages of 7.1 points and 3.9 rebounds. Marita Payne, a 6-5 center, is contributing 6.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and she has a team single season record of 75 blocked shots.
N.C. State is led by 6-3 senior center Kaayla Chones, who is averaging 14.8 points and 7.8 rebounds.
Ciampi says it is easy to concentrate on AU's first round opponent, even though UConn is a potential second round foe. "From my point it is easy because you have to respect North Carolina State," he says. "From the outside what the players are hearing about playing Connecticut, that is a concern, but North Carolina State, just like any team in there, they believe they can win. You have to put yourself in a position to be ready to play.
"Watching them on tape, this Kaayla Chones at 6-3, and a left-hander, she is a force. We are trying to show our kids how to respect them just like any other team, but when it is sudden death you better be focused on one game. We want to have the opportunity to play Connecticut, but we are thrilled with the opportunity we are in the tournament."
Ciampi says the fact that all of his starters and key reserves contributed to AU's WNIT run last year is a plus. "They understood the preparation to win and they understood playing on an opponent's homecourt. I don't have to sell, but we are still selling that defensive disruption is going to be a key for us. We have to stop people from getting those good looks and we have to be a heck of a rebounding team and everything else will take care of itself."
Coach Joe Ciampi
N.C. State's other starters are 6-1 senior forward Alvine Mendeng (7.8 points, 5.9 rebounds), 5-8 senior guard Terah Jones (3.9 points, 0.8 rebounds), 5-11 sophomore guard Rachel Stockdale (3.4 points, 1.5 rebounds) and 5-8 senior guard Nanna Rivers (6.2 points, 2.3 rebounds).
"At this time of the year, you look at work and effort and all the training from August to prepare yourself for this," Ciampi says. "You should feel rewarded that you've made your ultimate goal. From here on there are six games which have to be looked at and examined. The only way to go on is one game at a time."