Opening Night's Here for Lebo, Fortner

Auburn opens the men's and women's season with a Friday night doubleheader at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.

Auburn, Ala.--Ready or not it is opening night on Friday for the Auburn's men's and women's basketball teams as the Tigers are hosts for a doubleheader to open the final season of basketball at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.

Coach Nell Fortner's defending SEC champions will take the floor at 6 p.m. without four key seniors from last year's team, including SEC Player of the Year DeWanna Bonner, as they look to continue their dominance of Troy.

At 8:30 p.m. Jeff Lebo's Tigers, minus three key seniors from last season, will take on what is expected to be a strong Niagara team that features four returning starters from a squad that won 26 games last season and made the NIT field like Auburn did.

Lebo's squad will be counting on a combination of depth, that includes a lot of talent from its newcomers, as well as experienced seniors like 6-6 forward Lucas Hargrove, 6-2 point guard DeWayne Reed and 6-2 shooting guard Tay Waller.

Reed averaged 13.2 points last year and 3.7 assists. He is a second team preseason All-SEC selection.

Waller, Auburn's top three-point threat, Tay Waller, averaged 12.2 points and 2.8 rebounds after transferring in as a junior from Okaloosa-Walton Junior College.

Hargrove, team co-captain along with 6-1 sophomore guard Sullivan, averaged 8.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season. Sullivan came on strong late in the season when the Tigers played their best basketball and finished with averages of 9.7 points and 3.4 rebounds.

Lucas Hargrove is expected to be a key player for the Tigers.

"I am looking to step up as a team leader and improve my scoring and rebounding totals," says Hargrove, who notes he will try to help fill the void left by starting forward Vot Barber who is playing professionally in Europe.

Auburn's fifth starter is expected to be 6-10 senior center Brendon Knox, who averaged 2.5 points and 1.7 rebounds last season for the Tigers. He also played his best basketball down the stretch after a slow start.

Niagara, which plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, posted a 26-9 record last year led by 5-11 guard Tyrone Lewis, who averaged 16.2 points as a junior. Bilai Benn, a 6-5 senior forward, averaged 13.8 points and 9.3 rebounds.

The Purple Eagles also return 6-2 guard Rob Garrison, who averaged 10.9 points per game as junior, and 6-6 forward Demetrius Williams, who averaged 7.7 points and 3.0 rebounds.

This is the first time the Tigers have played Niagara and Lebo says he is wary of the opening night opponent with five seniors in the starting lineup and quality depth.

Coach Jeff Lebo

"They have the MAAC Preseason Player of the Year, Tyrone Nelson," he says. "We will have our work cut out for us out there. They're very small, very quick and very athletic. They can shoot the three and spread you out. They have four returning starters off a 26-win team. It's a tough way to start out. Our kids are ready. We're excited about playing and we'll be tested early.

"Joe Mihalich is an excellent coach," Lebo notes. "He's been at Niagara for a long time so we know they will be prepared when they come in to play us. We are fairly healthy right now."

Tony Neysmith, a 6-5 guard, is expected to play as he recovers from an ankle sprain. Also, 6-8 forward Johnnie Lett is scheduled to play as he recovers from a foot problem. Waller has missed some practice time, too, with a bruised thigh muscle.

Auburn played everybody but the managers in a 87-40 exhibition win over a weak Miles team last Friday.

Coach Nell Fortner's women's team will start the action against a Troy team that has two wins in 32 tries vs. Auburn. The Tigers have major rebuilding to do after losing 66.9 percent of their points to graduation as well as 51.2 percent of their rebound total.

In the 2009-2010 opener they will face a Troy team that has lost 12 straight matchups vs. Auburn.

"They have good three-point shooters and their offense is very hard to guard," Fortner says of the Trojans. "They will pull your post players out you so we have to go out there and guard on the perimeter. They run a very good offense, very fast-paced motion offense and shoot the three ball really well so it'll be a good game."

The Tigers played with just nine players in their exhibition victory, but will get their only senior back on the court, 6-7 center Keke Carrier, who was sidelined for the exhibition game with a minor injury.

Alli Smalley notes that the Tigers will try to play up-tempo basketball again this season.

Auburn will count on returning starters Alli Smalley at guard and fellow junior Jordan Greenleaf at forward. Greenleaf is back after receiving a medical hardship redshirt last season after being injured in the first month of the season. Smalley, a two-year starter, is a preseason second team All-SEC selection.

Fortner is also expected to rely heavily on four newcomers. The group includes 6-3 guard/forward Blanche Alverson from Buford, Ga., High, 5-11 guard Nicolle Thomas from Colquitt County High in Moultrie, Ga., 5-8 point guard Morgan Toles from Sandy Creek High in Fayetteville, Ga., and 6-8 freshman center and Pascale West from Troup County High in LaGrange, Ga.

In Auburn's 73-50 exhibition win over Georgia College and State University on Sunday, sophomore guard Parrisha Simmons scored 14 points and added 11 rebounds while Thomas led the Tigers in points with 16. Smalley scored 14 and 6-2 sophomore center Chantel Hilliard added led points while Greenleaf led the Tigers on the boards with 12.

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