After dropping the road opener Sunday at Florida despite a strong showing in the game, Fortner said that having to play Vanderbilt is a tough way to begin the home SEC season. However, in this league you expect to play a quality opponent every night and she said that's exactly the situation the Tigers find themselves in.
"It is tough, but from top to bottom, this league is so strong," Fortner said. "There is not really a game or a night that you can take off that is easier than another team. It is a tough, tough league. The one positive thing about opening at home with Vanderbilt is that Auburn suffered a loss to them at the end of the season in the SEC Tournament that still sticks with these players. I have heard a great deal about it and I don't think it is going to take a whole lot to motivate them. I guess if we had to pick a game to play first at home, it might be Vanderbilt."
Ranked 12th in the country, the 12-2 Commodores present a variety of problems for the Tigers, beginning with forward Ashley Early. Leading the team in scoring at 19 points per game and pulling down a team-high 8.9 rebounds, the 5-10 senior is quick around the basket and off the floor. Joining her in the paint is standout sophomore Carla Thomas. The 6-3 post player is averaging 14.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
The play inside makes it tough to guard the Commodores on the perimeter, where Dee Davis makes her living. Second on the team in scoring at 14.9 points, she leads an attack that is deadly from behind the three-point arc. Fortner said the Tigers have to be ready to guard the perimeter because that's where Vanderbilt can change the game in a hurry.
"You can't leave those shooters open and give them wide-open shots and let them see the basket easily," Fortner said. "That is where we have to tighten up our defense. We allowed that at Florida and you can't do that in the SEC. The players are too good. If you give them uncontested looks, they are going to knock them down. We have to make sure that we are moving and rotating and get out there and contest those shots."
Natasha Brackett is a veteran performer for the Tigers.
Leading the way for the 9-5 Tigers is senior guard Natasha Brackett. Averaging 15.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, the 5-9 Brackett has been solid this season as Auburn adjusts to a more up tempo style under Fortner.
The biggest winner in the new style of play has been junior Louise Emeagi because of her athleticism and combination of size and ability. Averaging 12.2 points and 7.8 rebounds, she is coming off a career day at Florida when she scored 29 points. Fortner said that keeping Emeagi under control is the hardest part of coaching her for the first time.
"Louise Emeagi is a tremendous athlete," Fortner said. "She is a very hard-working player and is very competitive. Sometimes I think that competitive nature gets the best of her. Sometimes she works so hard and gets so worked up that it turns into a negative. We are trying to find a balance for her, where she can stay balanced and react to the ebb and flow of the game, to not get too high or too low.
"Louise isn't the first player that I have coached that is that emotional of a player," Fordner said. "I have coached many players like that and you just have to help them handle their emotions. At least she has some emotion. Some players play with no emotion and you are constantly trying to find that emotion. With Louise, all you have to do is help her try to balance hers. Louise is a tremendous player. When she is playing and has it all on an even keel, she is a tough, tough player."
Rounding out the starting lineup for the Tigers will be senior point guard Nicole Louden (9.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg), junior center Marita Payne (9.9, 9.1) and junior guard Nitasha Brown (5.4, 1.9). Fortner said the challenge for the Tigers is to play a full 40 minutes against a team that is a tough match-up because of the style of defense.
"We look forward to getting back at it at home against Vanderbilt," she said. "They are a very good team, they are fundamentally sound, they are solid on both ends of the floor and we have to be ready to attack that match-up zone they run for 40 minutes. That will be a real challenge for us."