WNIT allows Auburn room for growth

Nell Fortner knows her young Tigers will grow from the WNIT experience.

Nell Fortner remembers the last time she took the Tigers to the Women’s NIT, in 2007.

That team, which featured three sophomores, a junior and a freshman in its starting lineup, made it to the quarterfinals that year, the NCAA Tournament the next year and won the SEC regular season championship the year after.

Fortner is hoping to see a similar progression come out of the Tigers’ return trip to the WNIT this year, which starts tonight at 7 p.m. with a road matchup against Ohio Valley Conference regular-season champion Tennessee Tech (23-7).

“The most important thing to remember is we’ve got five freshmen on this team, and they need all the postseason experience they can get,” Fortner said. “I’m really happy we’re going to continue to play in that environment. Hopefully we can reap the benefits of this opportunity.”

The current incarnation of the Auburn (15-15) starting lineup consists of a freshman, a sophomore, two juniors – who had a combined six career starts entering this year – and senior Alli Smalley.

The Tigers just got younger with the departure of senior forward Jordan Greenleaf in early February and the concussion suffered by starting point guard Morgan Toles, forcing her to miss the past three games.

Fortner said Toles is not expected to play tonight or the second round if the Tigers advance, but could be available if Auburn moves beyond the tournament’s opening week.

“We’ve lost two starters in the last month, so we’re having to recover from that,” Fortner said. “That’s not something that just happens quickly.”

Junior Chantel Hilliard has filled in capably for Greenleaf, averaging 8.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in six starts down the stretch.

Junior Morgan Jennings has shown glimpses of efficiency in Toles’ absence, playing well against Georgia and Kentucky but struggling against Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament.

The Tigers as a whole struggled for much of the final month of the season, losing seven of nine.

Smalley said layoff between the SEC Tournament and the WNIT has allowed the team some time to look at itself.

“We knew we were preparing for someone, but we didn’t know who it was,” Smalley said. “So we were really kind of just fine-tuning ourselves, which was good for us. It’s been a good opportunity for us to work on a lot of things that we need to work on.”

The Golden Eagles, Auburn’s first round opponents, posted a 15-3 regular season conference record to win the OVC but lost 82-76 to UT-Martin in the conference tournament finals.

Their main weapon is 5-foot-7 guard Tacarra Hayes, who leads the team in points (16.8), rebounds (7.7), assists (4.7) and steals (1.7) per game.

“It’s different having to play someone that you’re not familiar with,” Smalley said. “We’ll look at them the next couple of days, get some good film on them and figure out our gameplan against them. It should be a good matchup.”

If Auburn wins, it stays on the road to face the winner of Delaware (20-13) and Toledo (23-8) this weekend.

“To allow (the young players) to play more is very important for their development for next year,” Fortner said. “It’s just a matter of having to gel again with a new lineup.”

dmorrison@oanow.com | 737-2568

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