Pure grit helps Auburn compensate for a lack of size
Posted: Monday December 31, 2007 1:16PM; Updated: Monday December 31, 2007 1:16PM
Auburn junior Whitney Boddie wondered how pulling a sled would help her rebound better. She wasn't sure running on a football field would make it easier to get up and down a basketball court.
But she pulled. And she ran -- uphill, downhill, 100s, 400s. That's how Boddie and her teammates prepared for the 2007-08 season.
"I thought, 'What are we doing out here on this football field,'" Boddie said. "But a lot of people saw their verticals go up and their speeds get faster."
Thanks in part to those offseason workouts, the Tigers are on their way up. Auburn has already knocked off a pair of then-ranked opponents on the road. A November win over Ohio State was the first over a ranked opponent since coach Nell Fortner took over in 2004.
"It's the biggest win since we've been here," Boddie said. "It's a testament to how hard we worked in the offseason. It's one of many goals we're trying to accomplish this year."
Auburn will have a chance to add to that list on Thursday when the Tigers host No. 22 George Washington. But the goal of beating Top 25 teams is just one step toward a much larger objective.
The Tigers, No. 15 in the AP poll and No. 12 in SI.com's power rankings, are looking for their first NCAA tournament appearance under Fortner. They appeared to be on their way last season, winning 13 of their first 16 games. Then, they hit the Southeastern Conference schedule and suffered a key injury.
KeKe Carrier, a 6-foot-7-inch, two-year starter, was hampered by a foot injury that kept her out six games. When she returned Carrier's minutes and production were down and the Tigers couldn't overcome the 2-4 start in a conference that sent two teams two the Final Four, including national champion Tennessee.
Auburn ended up with a 6-8 SEC record, and had to settle for the WNIT instead of the NCAA tournament.
"You lose a 6-7 kid, and that's a difference maker," Fortner said. "It kind of knocked the wind out of us and we had to figure out who we were without her."
Carrier is once again absent from the lineup this season due to undisclosed circumstances. The loss wasn't such a hit for the Tigers this time around because they knew from the start their biggest player wouldn't be on the floor. So, Auburn did what it didn't have the chance to last year -- adapted.
A smaller lineup prompted Fortner to change the offense, relying on a quicker pace and transition game. The coach has changed a bit, too. Boddie said Fortner no longer harps on the team about turnovers. With the pace they're running, a few mishaps are expected.
"Last year, she was so adamant about turnovers," Boddie said. "This year, she's more willing to make the mistakes we might make because we play faster. It's something you want to minimize, but we don't really focus on it as much. That gives us freedom to play without worrying about it."
It seems to be working out just fine. The Tigers are averaging nearly 10 more points a game. They're getting more rebounds, thanks in part to Boddie. The 5-9 guard is averaging 6.4 a game, trailing only 6-4 DeWanna Bonner.
"That is a huge for us, because not as big inside this year," Fortner said. "Whitney just has a nose for the ball."
Boddie is contributing more than boards this season. Fortner said Boddie is more mature and focused than ever. "She's taking on a much bigger leadership role," Fortner said. "She understands better her responsibilities as a point guard."
She's not alone. Boddie and the other juniors make up Fortner's first recruiting class at Auburn. They've logged a lot of minutes since arriving on campus.
"The majority of us are upperclassmen now," Bonner said. "We've been here together and we know each other. We have great team chemistry."
Bonner also has some national team experience to throw into the mix. She spent the summer competing with the USA Basketball U-21 team that won a gold medal at the FIBA Championship.
Bonner, who leads the Tigers with 17.2 points and 9.3 rebounds, took the opportunity to expand her game. The chance to play with Courtney Paris and other big inside talents allowed Bonner to work on her mid-range game, something she hopes will further help offset the size disadvantage Auburn may have in the SEC.
"I learned a lot that I brought back to Auburn," Bonner said. "I gained a lot of confidence."
With their only loss coming by two points at Texas A&M, Bonner's teammates have developed more confidence too. But they learned last year that early success doesn't guarantee success later in the season.
"Last year we started out good, but we didn't finish it off," Boddie said. "We didn't have a signature win last year. That's something we talk about. I think the experience we have and the motivation we have is going to push us even more. Hopefully, we can take care of business."