- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) - Auburn coach Nell Fortner tries not to think about what could have been last season.

The Tigers were cruising along in the first half of the year, winning 10 of their first 11 games, and then point guard Whitney Boddie was ruled academically ineligible. They were never the same afterward, and finished the year with an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round to George Washington.

“We were doing really well until she became ineligible,” Fortner said. “We had to recover from that. It’s a hard thing to recover from. You have to move past that and get to where we are now. I knew what we were capable of and it’s nice to see what we’re able to do with her in the lineup.”

Boddie rejoined the team this season and Auburn (29-3) jumped out to a quick start _ winning its first 20 games before the Tigers were beaten by Georgia. They rode that momentum to their first Southeastern Conference title in 20 years before losing to Vanderbilt in the conference tournament final March 8.

Sitting and watching her teammates play last year was hard on Boddie.

“It left me hungry,” said the senior guard, who is averaging 11.3 points and 8.1 assists this year. “I couldn’t help them.”

Boddie will try and lead Auburn to its first win in the NCAA tournament since 2004 when the Tigers face 15th-seeded Lehigh in round one on Saturday. Seventh-seed Rutgers faces No. 10 seed Virginia Commonwealth in the other game at Piscataway. Whichever team emerges from here then heads to Oklahoma City for the regionals.

The last time Auburn was a two-seed, in 1990, the Tigers advanced to their third straight national championship game.

“These kids are leaving their legacy as one of the great teams in Auburn’s history. They’ve worked very hard to make it happen. I’m proud of them,” Fortner said. “Now this is a whole different season.”

Having to potentially play Rutgers on its home court in the second round isn’t a huge deal for the Tigers.

“There’s no easy road game in the SEC. The crowds are well, I wouldn’t say hostile, let’s go with not friendly,” said Fortner with a smile. “You have to go on the road and win and prove yourself. We’ve had the opportunity and success to do that. We’ve been in some tough environments and won in some tough environments.”

First the Tigers will have to get past the Mountain Hawks (26-6), who advanced to the tournament by beating rival Lafayette in the Patriot League championship game. It’s only the second NCAA appearance for Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks lost to Connecticut 103-35 in 1997.

Lehigh coach Sue Troyan was in her second season at the school in 1997. She believes her team’s 3-point shooting prowess can cause Auburn problems.

“If we can execute our game plan offensively and defensively we’re a pretty good matchup. We watched the Vanderbilt tape. I look how we play and defend, and we do a lot of similar style to what they do.”

Despite being relatively close to home, Lehigh took full advantage of its NCAA experience going to New York City on Thursday for dinner and watching some of the men’s first round action.

“We watched American almost beat Villanova and it gave us some confidence,” said Lehigh guard Erica Prosser of her fellow Patriot League team.

While Lehigh had about an hour’s drive to get to Piscataway, Rutgers will be playing at home.

The Scarlet Knights (19-12) struggled this season, finishing seventh in the Big East conference. Still they came on strong at the end, giving Connecticut a tough game in the regular season finale before falling to Louisville in double overtime in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.

“We had tremendous growth in all aspects in how we play,” Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said.

Even though they are playing on campus, things are a little different for the Scarlet Knights than a typical home game.

They are staying down the road at a hotel instead of in their dorm rooms and the athletes don’t have to attend classes. Even the Rutgers Athletic Center is different, with the NCAA blue carpet covering the usual scarlet.

“I feel like we’re in a different place,” Stringer said. “Being familiar with campus is good. It can also have its distractions as well.”

While Rutgers is a NCAA tournament veteran, its opponent Virginia Commonwealth (26-6) is a newcomer, making its first appearance.

Led by center Quanitra Hollingsworth, the Rams lost in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, yet still earned an at-large bid.

“Being that it’s first game we’re all anxious,” Hollingsworth said. “We know it’s an opportunity and privilege. We’re expecting to do well.”

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