The 2016 Tigers have a big task on their hands. Their mission: to continue the success of the previous seasons and cement a legacy of their own.
The Princeton women’s basketball team comes into this season looking to continue what has arguably been the greatest stretch in the team’s history, and quite possibly in the entirety of the Ivy League. In 2014, the Princeton Tigers finished the season at a perfect 29-0, won the Ivy League, earned an 8th seed in the 2014-2015 NCAA victory. They also won their first ever NCAA tournament game, beating No. 9 Green Bay. This was only the second NCAA tournament win in Ivy League history. Princeton also finished the season with the highest tournament seed (8) and highest NCAA ranking (13) in the Ivy League’s long history.
Following this historic season was yet another successful campaign for the Tigers. The Tigers finished the year at 23-5 and earned the first ever at-large bid for the NCAA tournament – an 11th seed – in Ivy League history. They also finished second in the Ivy League, losing in the final game of the season to eventual champion Penn. Princeton finished ranked in the top ten nationally in several defensive categories, including rebounding and scoring margin. The Tigers also saw guard Annie Tarakchian ’16 sign with the WNBA team New York Liberty.
Now that 2016 has arrived, the Tigers are focused on balancing honoring the past and playing for the future. The Tigers unveiled their 2016 tournament banner during their home opener this Friday, in which they celebrated the success of the class of 2016. The festivities led up to the opening of the 2016 season against the Rider Broncos. “Everyone is ready to go and ready for the year” said senior Vanessa Smith. “I think we are going to be a fun team to play and watch this year.”
“The emphasis this year has been to focus on winning the day, which I think is huge, because, to reach any goal, you have to focus on the steps, focus not on the destination but on the journey. And I think that everyday this team has come ready to play and ready to win the day, and if we continue to dial into that, good things are going to be in store for us,” said senior Taylor Brown.
This season, the Tigers know that they have the attention of everyone in the Ivy League and around the nation, and that they will get the best play out of every team they face. Said Head Coach Courtney Banghart, “we are now the hunted, but I think there is an element in this program that wants to be the hunted. It means something to play for this program and other schools on our schedule want to beat us.” The Tigers face a tough non-conference schedule that features games against George Washington, Dayton, and Georgia Tech; each of those teams received some AP votes in the pre-season rankings. In addition to these teams, Princeton faces some long road trips to Kansas State and Lipscomb. The Tigers will play nine teams in total that went to the NCAA tournament last year. On the tough schedule, Brown commented, “Coach has instilled on us not to focus too much on the opponent. Focus more on how we play and no matter who we play we will bring our style to the game.”
Once through a tough non-conference schedule, the Tigers begin Ivy League play with a string of five home games. Conference play begins with a rematch against last year’s champion UPenn. The two teams square off Jan. 7 and then again to close out the season on March 7. Both of these teams will be contesting for the league title, so these games play critical roles in the race for the conference championship. However, many other critical conference games, including the Harvard game on Feb. 4, take place at home in the beginning of the year, and conclude on the road.
It will be interesting this year to see how every team in the conference handles the new Ivy League conference tournament. In years past, the team that won the regular season title earned automatic access to the NCAA tournament. This year, the regular season determines the conference champion and the seeds to a new tournament that will occur in the middle of March. The tournament will determine who wins the automatic bid, with other teams left to hopefully receive at-large bids.
Princeton comes into this season looking to replace four of the five starters from last year. The Tigers will look to their younger players to replace the seniors that led the team to one of the nation’s best defenses and one of the conference’s best offenses last year. Banghart – now in her 10th season with the Tigers – is looking for rising stars such as senior Vanessa Smith and junior Kenya Holland to step up and fill the void left by the graduated seniors. “The people that are coming up are ready to step up and fill their roles” stated returning starter Smith.
Fortunately, the Tigers were able to enjoy a rewarding and fun preseason. This year, the Tigers traveled to Australia to practice, play exhibition games, bond as a team, and interact with the communities that they visited. “We got to play games there which was huge”, commented senior Taylor Brown, “We got to come into this season with a notch under our belt, which I think gave us a bit of confidence and definitely showed us what we need to work on and what we are good at.”
One thing to watch out for this season is how the new freshman class fits into the offense and defense. The “Core Four” looks to replace the void left by the graduating seniors and begin a legacy of their own. These four freshman – Sara Lewis, Taylor Baur, Jordan Stallworth and Bella Alarie – have been described as “a force to be reckoned with” for all opponents this season. Said Smith, “… that group is a dynamic group. They’re going to contribute and we are really excited to have them and they mesh really well with our team.” The freshman are in good hands under the leadership of captains Vanessa Smith and Taylor Brown. According to coach Banghart, “They’ve been spot-on all year. I’m proud of them, as I have been all season so far”. They will try and start their legacy as early as possible as they will all look to get off to hot starts in the opening weeks. “We may be young, but we are eager and ready to go and we are going to get it done” said Vanessa Smith. “We are all in it together,” explained Coach Banghart, “this is a unique experience and we are enjoying every minute of it.”