Tigers Open SEC Tournament Play Vs. Lady Gators

Nashville, Tenn.--A disappointing Auburn women's basketball season is expected to come to an end on Thursday night as the Tigers take on Florida in the opening round of the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament.

The scheduled tipoff time is 8:15 p.m. CST at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in downtown Nashville. Auburn is 3-11 in the SEC and 15-12 overall. The Tigers are the 11th seed and are playing the fourth and final game of the opening day of the tournament against sixth-seeded Florida, which is 18-9 overall and 8-6 in the conference.

If Auburn wins, the Tigers will play third seed Vandy at 8:15 p.m. on Thursday. A loss will end the season for Auburn, which has never been seeded this low in the conference tournament.

Sophomore forward Le'Coe Willingham, a second team All-SEC pick, leads the Tigers with averages of 11.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Willingham has faced double-teams since Auburn's leading scorer, sophomore center Tia Miller, was lost for the year at the start of SEC play with a knee injury. Backup center Brandi Hillman was then sidelined when she broke a bone in her foot just after Miller was hurt.

"Le'Coe has had to step up and be a big person against some outstanding post players in the league and she has done an outstanding job for us, probably more than some coaches would ask for," Auburn coach Joe Ciampi says. "With Brandi, hopefully, we can get her 20 minutes a game and give us that defensive presence that we need on the inside against an outstanding Florida team."

Willingham isn't the only player to be honored by the league this season. Reserve guard Natasha Brackett, was named to the SEC All-Freshman team this week.The left-hander is averaging 7.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.

Auburn Stats

The Gators are led by six-foot-four first team All-SEC sophomore center Vanessa Hayden, who averages 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. Brandi McClain, a 5-9 senior guard, is a second team All-SEC selection and is averaging 15.7 points and five assists per contest.

Auburn leads the all-time series with the Gators 25-10, but Florida won the regular season meeting at Auburn 70-61. Auburn has met the Lady Gators six times in SEC Tournament play and has won five of those meetings.

Also on Thursdsay, Alabama and Georgia open the tournament at noon, Arkansas will play Ole Miss at 2:15 and MississippiState meets Kentucky at 6 p.m.

In addition to Willingham, Auburn is scheduled to start 5-5 senior point guard Carol Smith (10.8 points and 2.7 assists), 5-9 sophomore guard Nancy Derrick (5.3 points, 3.1 rebounds), 5-10 junior Keisha Johnson (7.9 points, 5.9 rebounds) and junior center Kerdu Arbet (3.5 points, 3.1 assists).

Auburn played its regular season finale in Nashville on Sunday, losing 72-54 at Vandy's Memorial Gym.

"We are a young team that has struggled ever since the Tennessee game with some key injuries to three players that basically play the same post position," Ciampi says. "Losing Tia Miller in the Tennessee game and then losing Brandi Hillman and Annette Wright sort of put us in a position where our defensive presence inside was lacking. We are a team that is searching for an identity.

"We now have Brandi back, but not at full speed. She was out for six weeks. She returned to help us win over South Carolina which proves to us as a team that we are capable of finding a way to win and that is what it takes from this young team now. They have to be able to play defense with an inside presence and try to secure some easy baskets and play at both ends of the floor.

"We will be tested Thursday night against Florida. They were our first opponent in the SEC this season and we felt that Vanessa Hayden created a lot of problems for us and Brandi McCain on the outside is a threat, too. We are excited about having an opportunity to play in the tournament."

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