Fortner Prepares Tigers For New Era

Birmingham, Ala.--After 25 years with Joe Ciampi as head coach of the Auburn women's basketball team, the Tigers are ready to start a new era under Coach Nell Fortner.

Fortner, who has held several high-profile head coaching jobs at places like Purdue, the WBNA's Indiana Fever and USA's Olympic Team, told a group of reporters at the 2004 SEC Basketball Media Days in Birmingham Thursday that she is excited to be coaching at Auburn.

"I'm just real proud to be in this conference," she says. "I've always thought this was the best conference in the country for women's basketball. When you're a competitive coach or player you want to play against the best. You want to coach against the best and that is what happens in the SEC. I'm happy to be here."

The Auburn program was a national powerhouse during the late 1980's and early 1990's under Ciampi, but hasn't made the Sweet 16 since the 1995-1996 season. Fortner has several hurdles to overcome to get the team back, and will rely on several talented guards to lead the 2004-2005 squad.

"When you've got good guards you can compete," she says. "That's what is so very encouraging and exciting about this team is we've got some excellent guards. There's no question they're going to be counted on greatly. This team lost a lot of scoring losing LeCoe Willingham and Mandisa Stevenson. Those are two great players right there coming out of the SEC. Both of them are playing in the WNBA right now.

Nicole Louden will be a key for the Tigers this season.

"LeCoe helped Connecticut get to the WNBA Finals," Fortner adds. "That's a lot of scoring to make up for. These players understand that and they know that they have to step up and be able to make up for losing all those points. When you have a scorer like Natasha Brackett... Louise Emeagi is going to have to step up this year and play more minutes and score more, and so is Nicole Louden. Taneisha Thompson is back. She's a quick little guard who can put points on the board quickly."

Another obstacle that Fortner and the Tigers must overcome is the change of defensive strategy from almost entirely zone schemes under Ciampi to Fortner's man-to-man defenses.

"That's been the biggest transition--to teach the fundamentals of man-to-man defense because we are going to play man-to-man and they've been playing zone defense their whole career at Auburn," she says. "The pressure on the ball and denying the ball on the perimeter...there's so many things that are different about a man defense than a zone defense. And those are things that you have to work on every day.

"I see improvement every day and that's what is so encouraging and exciting. We have the quickness to play this defense and that's what is so encouraging about it. It's a fun defense to play when it gets clicking, especially when you extend it 94 feet and see what you can do with it."

Guard Natasha Bracket is the team's leading returning scorer from a year ago, and Fortner says that she will be counting on the senior on the offensive end of the court.

"She's got to score," Fortner notes. "She's got the green light now. She is an excellent scorer. She has a beautiful shot. She has an instinct for it and she will have to put points on the board.

"So will Tanesheia Thompson," she adds. "She didn't play last spring but she can put points on the board and so can Louise Emeagi. Those three are really going to have to look to be offensive every time they have the ball in their hands."

Fortner and the Tigers open the season on Nov. 7 when they play an exhibition against Premier Players at 3:30 p.m. at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. The regular season begins on Nov. 19 when Auburn faces Wisconsin-Green Bay at the Bank North Classic in Burlington, Vt.

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