"Before the announcement, I have never been as nervous in my whole life," two-time All-SEC player DeWanna Bonner tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "This is a great accomplishment for our team. We have worked so hard so that is why we are so happy. I am so happy for our coaches and our team that we are there."
For the Tigers, it is the 17th bid in school history to the women's tournament, but the first for Fortner at AU, who is in her fourth season at Auburn. Last year the Tigers were on the NCAA bubble, but didn't hear their name called and had to settle for a trip to the NWIT.
"It means everything for our program to take the next step and we took a big step forward," Fortner says. "You recruit kids to come here to win SEC Championships and NCAA Championships so the only way you can do that is to get to the NCAA Tournament and win.
"It is a most thrilling thing to see and feel that all-out joy from our kids when we got the news," says Fortner, who had her hands covering her face in nervous anticipation of what the brackets would reveal. "I will remember the feeling for the rest of my life."
Auburn's players celebrate the good news on Monday evening.
George Washington brings a 25-6 mark into the tournament. The Tigers vs. Colonials game will tip off at 1 p.m. CDT (11 a.m. local time) on the campus of Stanford University. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
Auburn's all-time record in NCAA Tournament play is 28-16 and the Tigers have made the Sweet 16 10 times, the Elite Eight six times and the Final Four three times with three runnerup finishes. AU's last trip to the NCAA Tournament was in 2004 as a seventh seed. The 11 seed is the lowest ever for the Tigers.
Auburn's opening round opponent is a team that edged the Tigers 68-66 on a buzzer beater on Jan. 3rd.
"We are familiar with George Washington so we know what we have to do," Fortner says. "We have made the first step by getting to the tournament. Now we have to go out there and do something with our opportunity and make some noise."
Bonner says getting the bid is even more special because the Tigers posted a 20-11 record despite playing without several key players for parts of the year or the entire season.
"I just tried to work hard with my teammates and overcome all of the obstacles we faced this year," the talented junior says. "We are looking forward to playing George Washington. They are a big and physical team. We need to go out there and run on them."
If Auburn wins, the Tigers will take on the winner of the game matching Cal and the University of San Diego in round two.
Fellow junior Sherell Hobbs notes that she was just as nervous as Bonner and their coach were hoping for good news. "Oh, I was nervous. I was sitting in the chair watching and thinking, ‘Oh, please, please let us get in.' I was so glad we were picked in the first bracket."
Commenting on the game vs. George Washington, Hobbs says,"I think it is a great matchup for us in the first round because we have played them. Usually when you play in the NCAA Tournament it is against a team you really don't know a lot about.
"It means a lot to me to get in the tournament," Hobbs adds. "My freshman year we didn't have a really good year. Last year we were hoping to get in and didn't. I sure didn't want to be here for three or four seasons and never get in the tournament. The big thing about getting it this year is our seniors will have a chance to go to the tournament.
"We are really excited and I think we are going to play great because we have been practicing great because our main goal this year was to go to the NCAA," Hobbs says.
The Tigers closed the regular season with a win over Arkansas and then defeated the same team in the first round of the SEC Tournament. The Tigers just missed upsetting Vandy, one of five SEC teams in the NCAA field, in the second round of the tournament.
When the Tigers played George Washington on Jan. 3rd they had an off night shooting, making just 37.3 percent of their field goals to 49.1 for the visitors, who were out-rebounded by Auburn 41-31.
Freshman guard Alli Smalley led the Tigers in scoring vs. GW with 17 points and she added nine rebounds. Bonner scored 12 points and pulled in 14 rebounds.
Nell Fortner covers her eyes as she waits on the tournament pairings to be announced on TV. The coach was wearing a green hat on St. Patrick's Day for good luck.
"I remember that three-point shot at the end of the game," Fortner says of AU's game vs. the Colonials. "We were just trying to get ourselves together when we played that game, which was just after we lost our point guard Whitney (Boddie). I thought our effort was tremendous in that game. We had a slow start, but the second half was a really competitive game."
The Tigers have been working out for more than a week in anticipation of earning an NCAA bid. "We have had good practices," Fortner says. "As hard as it is to practice not knowing for sure if you are in or where you are going if you are in, we kept the practices sharp and not as long, but they are ready. They are ready to get on the floor and get ready."