Fresh off of finals week, the Princeton Tigers aced perhaps their biggest test of the season to date.
In a wild weekend for Princeton sports, head coach Courtney Banghart netted win number 200, Princeton won an overtime thriller against rival Harvard, and the Tigers vaulted in the Ivy league standings after rattling off three straight conference victories — all three at home.
“We just came in with the confidence we needed after 20 days of practice,” noted senior captain Vanessa Smith. “We all came in aggressive and ready to play.”
Coach Banghart stated, “I told them that I think we got better these 20 days individually. Offensively I thought we have a much better feel on how to play together and defensively we are tougher and stronger.”
First up was a Friday night showdown against Dartmouth. Coach Banghart came into the game with 199 wins during her tenure at Princeton, with her first chance to earn win number 200.
Speaking for the team, Smith stated that “It [meant] everything that we could be here and give this to coach. We love breaking records around here and we are so happy for her!”
Fittingly, the milestone win came against her alma mater, which Coach Banghart said was “very special to her, as they had done so much for me.” The Tigers won handily by a score of 85-55. The Tigers’ offense was led by a 3-point barrage; Princeton banged in 12 shots from beyond the arc in a fashion reminiscent of its coach who, in her playing career, set a conference record for made threes with 273. Overall, Princeton shot an impressive 48% from the field and made 46% of their threes. Freshman Bella Alarie led the team with 14 points and received Rookie of the Week and Co-player of the Week for her performances against Dartmouth and Harvard. Sophomore Gabrielle Rush was right behind her, scoring 13 points. Senior Vanessa Smith — who added 11 to the cause — shot a perfect 5/5 from the floor in the game. She also led the team in rebounds with six of the Tigers’ 41 boards in the game en route to dominating the glass.
“They mean everything,” said Smith regarding the rebounds. “It’s an energy play, especially when we get an offensive rebound. We’re looking to out-rebound every team that we play. It’s our energy and it’s a vital stat.”
Despite the impressive win and milestone victory for the team, there was no time to celebrate as the Tigers took the floor Saturday for a showdown against rival Harvard. In a critical showdown for the Ivy League title and eventual first seed in the March tournament, the game had a “must win” feel for both teams, and its dramatic finish left those leaving Jadwin feel as if they had just seen the potential Ivy League game of the year.
The teams went back and forth throughout the game. The first half featured long runs and scoreless droughts alike by both teams, as Harvard kept trying to pull ahead, only to have Princeton claw its way back in it. Princeton ended the half on a small, albeit critical, 4-0 run that put the Tigers down only six heading into halftime.
The third quarter featured perhaps the best defensive showing of the year for the Tigers, maybe even better than the four-point quarter earlier in the season. The Tigers took off on a 15-0 run in the third as they held the Crimson to just 1/14 shooting and outrebounded them 20-6 to take the lead. “We just really had to commit to our defensive principles,” said Rush regarding halftime adjustments. “We were giving them too many easy shots and we came together as a team and said we are going to need to gut out this win”.
From there, the game continued to go back and forth with each team hitting clutch three’s and free throws. Princeton had two late chances to end the game, but could not make a bucket and so the game entered overtime.
During the overtime period, the back and forth nature ensued. As both teams looked to grab a decisive edge, Princeton found its when Rush drained a clutch three from the right side of the arc. Two possessions later, she found herself at the charity stripe and made both free throws to ice the win for Princeton. The final score: Princeton 63, Harvard 58.
“My teammates just found me where I had to be,” stated Rush, who added three other three’s on the night and finished with 16 points. “You have to give credit to Leslie for those two big plays and everyone getting big offensive rebounds and big assists. They were able to find me on that huge play and that shot going in is always great to have”.
Coupled with the fireworks on the court was the off-the-court celebrations of alumni weekend. Over 30 alumni throughout multiple generations of the program came home to cheer on the Tigers. They picked quite an entertaining week to return.
“It was great to go out there and give them a great show especially after the bad weekend we had last time out,” noted Rush. “We wanted to come out and protect our home court and make sure teams realize we are not going to give up anymore losses”.
“This is probably the best my group has come out after 20 days off since I’ve been here,” said Coach Banghart. “I think this group is poised and ready to continue and get better.”