Tigers tale: four seniors, one single goal
Sherell Hobbs was talking about her own lack of affection for all the assorted statistics that accompany her name in box scores, but the Auburn senior's words spoke for a team.
"When we look in the paper, Auburn won; no individual player won," Hobbs said. "So I just do my little part every game to make my team better."
When a history of Nell Fortner's reign at Auburn is eventually penned, DeWanna Bonner likely will earn her own chapter as the player who put the program back on the basketball map after more than a decade's hiatus from the Sweet 16 and beyond in the NCAA tournament. Cornerstone, building block, foundation -- whichever metaphor is applied, the lanky 6-foot-4 wing lives up to her end of the literary bargain. A member of the SEC all-freshman team her first season, she quickly progressed to first-team all-conference as a sophomore and consensus All-American by the start of her final season.
But Washington isn't depicted alone in the boat crossing the Delaware, and Bonner won't have sailed solo if she settles in Auburn lore as the proverbial mother of a resurgence.
The recruiting class that brought Bonner to Auburn, Fortner's first class after returning to the college game, set the stage for the success now unfolding. But it didn't consist simply of the star now earning so many accolades. When Auburn takes the floor in the NCAA tournament, potentially as a No. 1 seed, it will do so with a starting lineup consisting of four seniors, five Alabamans and one single goal.
And even if that solitary objective has evolved through the years, its essence still boils down to the sentiment a group of then high school players shared.
"We wanted to come here and bring championships back to Alabama and show Alabamans that we have great basketball players here in our state," Hobbs said of the recruiting class that included her, Bonner and point guard Whitney Boddie.
Hobbs was the first to commit, at which point, she said, she quickly went to work with her best sales pitch on Boddie, who once knocked her out of the state high school tournament, and Bonner, whom she played against in AAU ball. Louisiana native KeKe Carrier, now a redshirt junior, completed that initial class. A year later, Auburn native Trevesha Jackson joined the team after a year at Gulf Coast Community College.
Bonner and Boddie, the latter a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award for point guards, garner most of the national recognition for a team many outside the SEC are still getting familiar with as a championship contender, but Hobbs and Jackson also have been mainstays in Fortner's starting lineup. Each has started every game thus far this season, and Hobbs has started 93 of the team's 94 games since the beginning of her sophomore season.
"All four of the seniors are tremendous players and leaders; everyone contributes in different ways and leads in different ways," sophomore Alli Smalley said. "Sherell and Trevesha may not be like the flashiest players, but they are definitely a key to our success and are key for us night in and night out, just for big defensive stops, rebounding and different things like that."
To that end, Hobbs leads the team in steals and ranks third in rebounding, behind Bonner and Jackson. But even as she has become the all-around, all-court component the team needed to complement a scorer like Bonner and a distributor like Boddie, she hasn't forgotten the skills that helped her average 22 points per game as a high school senior.
In fact, as the team's second-leading scorer behind Bonner, she has grown from a prolific go-to prep scorer into a quintessential secondary scorer at the college level. After hitting just 16 3-pointers in her first three seasons combined, she has hit 22 through 28 games this season at a 39.3 percent clip. And on top of a career-best 110 free throw attempts, she's shooting 72.7 percent from the line, compared with 67.3 percent her first three seasons.
Just as Bonner has grown into an All-American, her classmates have grown around her.
"I think the talent has always been there," Hobbs said. "But each year, each one of us, we added something different to our game. So back then, our freshman year, I didn't have a pull-up jumper or my body wasn't strong enough to attack the basket and get and-1s. So I think maturity and experience and just believing in Coach Fortner's system is the main thing."
The final piece of the puzzle arrived last season in the form of Smalley, a highly touted shooter from Arab, Ala. She had other connections to the school -- her older brother is currently a manager on the women's basketball team -- but even her addition was in some ways linked to that initial class.
"I remember when I was like a freshman [in high school], I would go to tournaments -- over in Huntsville and things like that -- and watch them play," Smalley recalled of the current seniors. "I kind of looked up to them at that point because they were such good players and I knew they were being recruited heavily by top colleges. So that was kind of a cool thing to be able to watch them, and then know a couple of years later, I'm going to sign with a school and be able to play with them. That's a pretty special thing."
After struggling to find her stroke as a freshman, Smalley is shooting 44 percent from behind the line and averaging more than two 3-pointers per game this season. Combined with Hobbs, that shooting makes it more difficult for teams to send extra defenders at Bonner and gives Boddie that many more kickout options when she penetrates.
There are details to be worked out before anointing the Tigers as Connecticut's top competition. Holding serve as the top seed in the SEC tournament would be a good first step, but other than early wins against Temple and Ohio State, most of Auburn's signature moments have come within a conference that appears to be down from its recent peak.
Additionally, Auburn's defense and rebounding numbers slipped in conference play, with opponents shooting nearly 43 percent from the field and cutting their rebounding deficit against the Tigers to about four boards per game. Hobbs was quick to say the team isn't satisfied with the status quo, though, and pointed to stopping dribble penetration and boxing out more consistently as two points of emphasis moving forward.
But after finishing with a losing record as freshmen, earning a WNIT berth as sophomores and enduring a first-round exit in last season's NCAA tournament, Auburn's seniors have learned how to keep moving steadily toward the goal they've had all along. And in truth, whatever happens this month, they already have accomplished much of it.
All of them together.
"The main reason I wanted to come play was because of the program that was being built here and because of the players that are here," Smalley said. "I just wanted to experience, really, what we're experiencing now. That's what they recruited me saying, that we were going to get to this point."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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