Maybe the most remarkable thing about the Auburn women’s 64-62 upset of 11th-ranked LSU yesterday … in overtime …in Baton Rouge … is this line from Mechelle Voepel’s (excellent) profile of Fortner from last April:
The only returning starter for the Tigers will be rising junior Alli Smalley, a guard who averaged 11.1 ppg and led Auburn with 68 3-pointers. Fortner is eager to see what Chantel Hilliard, a 6-2 post player, will do as a sophomore when she gets more playing time. Same for 5-8 point guard Morgan Jennings. Both rookies played in 30 of the Tigers’ 34 games this season and each averaged around 12 minutes.
In case you missed it: Jennings hurt her knee in the pre-season and hasn’t played a minute this year. Hilliard has also struggled with injuries, only started two games, and didn’t see the court against LSU. Reneisha Hobbs–a junior guard and one of Auburn’s few reliable bench options a year ago–has also been lost for the year through injury.
Little wonder Auburn opened their SEC season with a decisive home loss to a veteran Miss. St. team, right? No one would really blame them for falling behind Florida on the road by 20 in the first half of their next outing, right?
This is what Nell Fortner’s team has done since then: erase every bit of that 20-point deficit, get a three-pointer from freshman Nicolle Thomas with three seconds remaining to take the Gators into overtime, force a second OT, finally lose a heartbreaker by 3 after three Florida triples in the second extra period; come back from that loss to lead LSU 22-18 at halftime, trail 57-50 with 1:33, score nine points in that 1:33 to send the game into OT on Alli Smalley’s three with 4 seconds remaining, win the game after holding LSU without a field goal for the final 4:53 of the game.
You don’t come back from 20-point deficits or win overtime games on the road with true freshman point guards, right? (The guard in question, by the way, is Morgan Toles of Fayetteville, Ga. She played 41 minutes in Baton Rouge, scoring 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting with 4 assists and 4 rebounds.) A team with one senior on the roster isn’t supposed to stay calm enough to hit last-second shots to force overtime in two consecutive games, right? When you lost your previous game in double-overtime, you don’t come back three days later and control the first half in another team’s building, right?
No, not right, not when your team is coached by Nell Fortner.
This is the textbook definition of a rebuilding year: four senior starters (two of them WNBA-bound) departed, two critical returnees lost for the year, freshmen and sophomores all over the place, not even maximum output from your one returning starter. (Smalley’s still hitting less than 30 percent of her threes for the season.) And it may not end in an NCAA tourney berth, or even a winning season. The Lady Tigers have taken some lumps already this season, and they’ll probably take a few more.
But here’s the thing about rebuilding with Fortner: the thing is going to get built. You can see that much already.
It might not be fair to turn around and say: So. What do you see when you look at Jeff Lebo? The men’s job is tougher, no question. Fortner’s setting the bar ridiculously high for this kind of comparison. And winning isn’t the end-all-be-all, especially when he’s been asked to clean up the wretched mess left behind by Cliff Ellis.
All that said: I can’t help but look at Fortner and think that there just aren’t enough excuses for Lebo anymore. Last Saturday’s game against South Carolina was the very definition of a must-win: at home, vs. one of the other six teams in the SEC’s bottom half, with an absolutely brutal stretch of schedule ahead (at Tennessee, vs. Kentucky, at LSU, at Vanderbilt, vs. Ole Miss … “at LSU” is probably the easiest one of the bunch). It was either win this one, or look down the barrel of a 1-5/0-6 SEC start.
Auburn, you may have heard, did not win this one, falling by 9 to the previously 9-5 ‘Cocks. After getting out to a 7-0 lead, Auburn allowed the visitors to score 17 of the next 25 and never led again. (The score was tied at 52-all with around 11 minutes to play before an 8-0 ‘Cock run.) The problem, according to Lebo, was Carolina guard Devan Downey:
“My fears came true in this game,” Lebo said. “We tried everything against him. We doubled him, zoned him, doubled the ball screen, switched the ball screen, hedged the ball screen, dropped the ball screen. We guarded it every which way you can guard it and he beat it every which way you can beat it. … He just single-handedly just whipped us.”
Two things here:
1. It’s always something, isn’t it? Their player was just too good. The players didn’t listen at practice. We missed our free throws. They hit too many threes. Never “my team wasn’t good enough.”
2. Downey was good, sure–33 points on 23 shots is pretty stout–but to say he beat Auburn”single-handed” is a stupid way of looking at the game. 33 points, sure, but Downey hit less than 50 percent from the field (11-of-23) and committed eight turnovers. Auburn could have won this game with that kind of production from Downey as long as they kept everyone else in check, especially if they’d kept him off the free throw line. (They didn’t; he went 7-of-10 from the stripe.)
But everyone else was not kept in check: the rest of the ‘Cocks hit 44 percent from deep and had three players in double figures, including Austin Steed, who only played 15 minutes but grabbed 5 offensive boards in that time, went 4-of-4 from the line, and finished with 10 points.
And still, even with Downey going off and plenty of offensive support, the ‘Cocks finished at just 1.04 points-per-possession. That’s hardly an insurmountable figure for an offensively competent team at home, which we believed Auburn to be. Too bad: the Tigers shot 2-of-13 from deep, 11-of-21 from the free throw line, and continued to watch DeWayne Reed take the lion’s share of shots (20 of them, as many as Brendon Knox and Frankie Sullivan combined) even though so few of them go in (8 of those 20). Result: .86 points-per-possession*.
So not only is Jeff Lebo losing, but if he really believes Saturday’s game was decided by something as simple as “Devan Downey was too good,” he doesn’t even understand why he’s losing.
In the end, what we’re left with after this past weekend of basketball is the overwhelming feeling that one of our Auburn basketball coaches will find a way to get the most out of her team and the program, despite the occasional hiccups; and one of our coaches will never find the way to get the most out of his team and the the program, despite the occasional successes.
I’m not ready to write the Jeff Lebo era’s obituary just yet (though yeah, I’m expecting I will before the spring’s out), but more than ever, I just feel that Auburn can do better. After all, we’ve got Nell Fortner.
*(As an aside: it’s sad that the Tigers are getting killed by their seniors, but there’s no way around it: Hargrove and Reed combined to earn 31 points on 34 shots and chipped in 11 turnovers to offset their 12 assists. Hargrove’s work on the glass at least meant he provided something, but this is just horrible, horrible offensive basketball.)
Photo via that same Voepel post. Read it.