"It is a huge step for us," Fortner says. "It was a step I had hoped to make a lot sooner than we did, but at least we have made it. We have just come up against some things that we didn't anticipate and you never anticipate those things as you are recruiting and signing kids, but things happen.
"Recruiting isn't an exact science and it doesn't always work out how you think it would and then sometimes it does and that is really good," the coach says. "We would have hoped this happened a couple years ago and for sure last year, but it has happened now and you hope that it snowballs and carries over into the emergence of your program."
The Tigers will bring a 20-11 mark into the tournament and are one of five SEC teams to make the field. George Washington, which is ranked 16th and 20th nationally in the polls, has a 25-6 mark and plays in the Atlantic 10 Conference. The Colonials defeated Auburn 68-66 on Jan. 3rd in Auburn.
The Tigers made the field this year despite being short four players expected to contribute--point guard Whitney Boddie, center Keke Carrier, guard Ree-Ree Hobbs and forward Mimi Pickard. Hobbs and Pickard are sidelined with injuries, Carrier is working on her academic situation as is Boddie, who lost her eligibility after the first semester.
"It is real hard to not think about it," Fortner says of her missing players. "I am just human. I think Whitney Boddie was having an all-conference year and I think KeKe Carrier is potentially a player that nobody else has. You can sit around and think about that all you want and it will drive you nuts if you sit and think about it too hard, but it is what it is."
For the Tigers to be successful, players with scoring potential like All-SEC junior DeWanna Bonner, Freshman All-SEC Team guard Alli Smalley and honorable mention All-SEC guard Sherell Hobbs need to play well for the Tigers.
"When you get into a tournament situation you never know who is going to step up," Fortner says. "Does she (Bonner) have the ability to do that? Sure she does and Sherell Hobbs does, too. Does Alli Smalley have the ability to go 8-for-10 from the three? Sure she does.
"You hope that this is the setting that they decide to do that because of all the excitement around it and what lies at the end of it all," Fortner adds. "You can't do that for them, they have to do that for themselves because this is what we work all year long for. Now we get to go see what we can do."
Saturday's game will be televised on ESPN2 at 1 p.m. CDT. The winner of the game plays the winner of Cal vs. the University of San Diego.
"This is something we have been waiting for and we are excited about playing in the tournament and excited about the rematch with George Washington," Hobbs says.