February 15, 2009
Auburn women''s basketball coach Nell Fortner believed the 2008-09 season could be special.
But even the most optimistic coach never would have imagined Auburn would start this season so well.
Fortner''s team will bring a four-game winning streak, a No. 5 national ranking, and their first-place status in the Southeastern Conference to Starkville today when it takes on Mississippi State at 2 p.m. at the Humphrey Coliseum.
Fortner, who is in her fifth season after taking over for Hall of Fame coach Joe Ciampi, has guided Auburn to a 24-1 start and a 9-1 mark in the SEC.
Auburn''s only blemish came in a 67-58 loss at Georgia on Jan. 29.
Other than that, it has been smooth sailing for SEC Preseason Player of the Year DeWanna Bonner and her teammates.
Fortner said a European trip in August helped pave the way for the team''s success.
"We took the team to Europe to give it that added time to bond and to get extra games under our belt so we could make a strong run this year," Fortner said. "With a veteran group (four seniors) it is a good time to take them overseas and give them a longer time to bond and to develop that chemistry."
Bonner, a 6-foot-4 senior guard, leads the Lady Tigers in scoring (20.8 points per game) and rebounding (8.6 per game). The lanky veteran can step outside and hit from 3-point range or score from the blocks.
Her long arms also allow her to be a shutdown defender.
But senior Whitney Boddie might be the player who makes Auburn go. After playing in only 11 games last season, the 5-9 point guard leads the nation in assists (8.3 per game). She is one of four players who scores in double figures (10.7 ppg.).
Auburn is only team in the SEC with four players in the top 30 in scoring in the league.
Sophomore guard Alli Smalley (12.6 ppg.) and senior guard Sherell Hobbs (12.3) are the others.
Boddie''s leadership has the Lady Tigers shooting and SEC-best 48 percent from the field, which is third nationally.
Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner, whose team lost to Auburn 72-65 on Feb 5, said Boddie has been the difference this season for the Lady Tigers.
"She makes things happen," Ladner said. "They have weapons at every position, but Whitney Boddie makes Auburn go."
Bonner isn''t too shabby, either. Ladner said Bonner "probably is the best player" in the SEC. She impacts the game more than other players, Ladner said, because she can play every position.
Fortner said Bonner is another in a long line of players who recently have been in the SEC -- Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus, Tasha Humphrey -- who have changed how women''s basketball is played.
"I think she is such a different kind of player that people are not used to seeing in the women''s game," Fortner said. "She is 6-4, has the skills of a guard, and can play at both ends of the court extremely well. Her build makes people shake their heads and wonder how in the world she is getting the job done. But she has great basketball skills and has developed her game. Her whole career she has gotten better."
Mississippi State likely will try to contain Bonner with 6-5 junior center/forward Chanel Mokango.
If that doesn''t work, senior forward Robin Porter (team-leading 6.6 rebounds per game) might earn the defensive assignment.
Mississippi State (19-6, 6-4 SEC) defeated Ole Miss 66-50 on Thursday for its third win in a row, and its fourth in its past five outings. The 19-6 start matches the second best start in school history, matching the 2002-03 squad that advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Mississippi State junior guard Alexis Rack leads the team in scoring (14.3 ppg.) and is fifth in the SEC in scoring. Junior guard Armelie Lumanu is averaging 11.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.5 steals a game.
Today''s game is the annual "Pink Zone" game in which everyone is encouraged to wear pink in support of breast cancer awareness.
The WBCA began the Pink Zone, formerly know as "Think Pink", in 2007 as an initiative to raise breast cancer awareness. In its second year last year, more than 1,200 teams and organizations participated, reaching more than 830,000 fans and raising more than $930,00 for breast cancer awareness and research.
In accordance with the "Pink Zone" game, game sponsors will hand out pink ribbons and the MSU President''s Commission on the Status of Women will provide headbands, wristbands, and shoelaces to the players.
n NOTE: The Cook Fine Arts Magnet School Basketball Skills Team, nicknamed "The Little Falcons," will perform at halftime of today''s game. Thirty-eight third-graders will showcase their skills. The school''s fourth-grade team will perform at halftime of the Auburn-MSU men''s basketball game Saturday, Feb. 28.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.