March 19, 2009
(AP) - Dominant play at home this season helped give Auburn another NCAA tournament appearance, but its ability to contend with opposing fans will likely play a role in how far it advances.
Facing a rough road early in the Oklahoma City Regional, the second-seeded Tigers look to avoid a second straight first-round loss as they face 15th-seeded Lehigh on Saturday at Piscataway, N.J.
Auburn (29-3) began the season with 20 straight wins and finished 12-0 at home en route to earning its best seed in the NCAA tournament since 1990, when it also was a No. 2 and advanced to its third straight Final Four.
The eighth-ranked Tigers are intent on making a longer run this season after losing in the first round to George Washington last year, but they'll likely have to overcome what could amount to a home-court advantage for their opponents.
Piscataway is less than 58 miles from Lehigh's home in Bethlehem, Pa., and Louis Brown Athletic Center is the home court of potential second-round opponent and No. 7 seed Rutgers, which will face 10th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth after Auburn's contest Saturday.
"It's a tough road, there's no question," said SEC coach of the year Nell Fortner, in her fifth season with the Tigers. "But there are no easy roads, so that's OK, that's how the tournament works. We're just looking forward to getting it going."
Fortner helped guide Auburn to its first SEC regular-season title since 1989, but it lost 61-54 to then-No. 22 Vanderbilt in the conference tournament final March 8.
The Tigers, however, should feel confident entering the NCAA tournament, having beaten perennial power Tennessee this season for the first time since 1997, topping the Lady Volunteers at Nashville and in the SEC tournament. They're 4-2 versus ranked teams, including victories over Ohio State and Florida.
Auburn is led by DeWanna Bonner, the unanimous SEC player of the year choice. The 6-foot-4 Bonner was easily the conference's top scorer at 21.0 points a contest and ranked third in rebounding with 8.5 per game.
The versatile senior is only the second player in school history to lead her team in scoring and rebounding for four straight years.
Bonner, though, was held to nine points in the SEC tournament title game. She averaged 26.3 points in her previous four contests.
Teammate Whitney Boddie also was named to the All-SEC first team, partly because she gives Bonner plenty of scoring chances. The senior guard averages an SEC-high 8.1 assists.
The Tigers are 28-17 in 17 previous NCAA tournaments.
Patriot League champion Lehigh (26-6), meanwhile, will be making its second appearance. The Mountain Hawks' first showing was in 1997, losing 103-35 to Connecticut in the first round.
"We made a point of telling the players that we're not happy just to be here," Lehigh coach Sue Troyan said. "We're going to practice hard and coach hard to try to win."
The Mountain Hawks won their first conference tournament title in 12 years, beating Lafayette 64-56 on March 11.
Alex Ross made six 3-pointers and scored 21 points to lead Lehigh. The junior guard is averaging 13.9 points and shooting 43.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Ross is joined in the backcourt by sophomore Erica Prosser, who averages a team-high 14.2 points, 4.4 assists and 2.0 steals.
This will be the first meeting between Auburn and Lehigh.