With only 11 days left in the 2017 offseason, the women’s basketball team is putting the finishing touches on an offseason which saw the team get stronger on both sides of the ball and develop what head coach Courtney Banghart called “a new sense of purpose.” After a season in which the Tigers finished second in the Ivy League standings and advanced to the inaugural Ivy League Tournament final, the team looks for loftier goals this year in their quest to return to the Big Dance.
Last season was a mixed bag for Princeton. The Tigers finished with a strong conference record of 9-5 and many of their players had career years in a Tiger uniform. Finishing second in the regular season and tournament to the undisputed Ivy favorite UPenn last year was an effort that should be applauded. Yet, there were times where things just didn’t seem to click for the Tigers. Big-time statement wins were followed up with head-scratching losses, and school records in offense or defense were preceded by days where the team struggled just to get a basket or a stop. Going into the offseason, the Tigers were set on developing more consistency on both sides of the ball; they knew the talent was there, and now it was about putting it all together.
When asked about the comparison of this year’s team to last year’s, Banghart replied, “I think this program has always incredible chemistry off the court. It's been a team top-to-bottom and side-to-side that's really prided itself on being one. Last year, we weren't quite as cohesive in terms of how we played the game together on either end. This particular group has transferred that cohesion and collection to the court. They share the ball, they're skilled off the dribble, they're skilled off the catch-and-shoot. We can shoot the ball better, we're faster, and defensively, they're light years better than they were.”
Princeton entered the offseason knowing that it would have to fill in the big holes left by departing class of 2017 players. Losing their two starting guards, Vanessa Smith and Taylor Brown, left a gaping hole in the Tigers’ backcourt as well as a need for new players to step up as leaders. Anchoring this year’s team will be the senior captains: guard Tia Weledji and forward Leslie Robinson. Both players were critical in the success of last year’s team and will look to carry over the culture and energy they’ve encountered with the program over the last four years.
“I think even since the first day we stepped on campus to today, we've grown so much, and from now until March, we plan to get better every single day,” noted Robinson. “I think that our consistency will drive us forward. Our eagerness to learn and get better and win championships is only going to drive us."
Fortunately for the Tigers, they retain a few of their top players from last season. Besides Robinson and Weledji, the Tigers kept junior Sydney Jordan – who can play both guard and forward – and sophomore forward Bella Alarie, who was last season’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year. These players, along with a strong new freshman class, have the Tigers entering 2018 with as much, if not more, talent on the court.
“What a difference a year makes,” said Banghart during Ivy League Media Day. “We have a lot of improved pieces and a lot of young talent that will contribute immediately to what we're about. I give a lot of credit to our senior class. The energy with this group is palpable and consistent. It's been a really fun team to coach. They're focused and committed to getting better.”
"I think our energy has been really good,” noted Jordan. “We all came in, ready to learn, ready to win and ready to work hard. Bringing energy every day is going be really important for us and is going to help us be great."
This season, Princeton will be hoping to start the regular season better than they did last season. The non-conference slate was rough for the Tigers, filled with long road trips and even some back-to-back games. This season, they will be looking to start on a higher note; they will have many familiar faces on tap, including Rutgers, Seton Hall, UMBC, Georgia Tech, and Villanova, who they faced in last season’s Women's National Invitation Tournament game at Jadwin. Once again, the Tigers will open their Ivy League schedule against Penn, a highlight to their Ivy League schedule.
Princeton kicks off its season this Friday at Jadwin against George Washington. The Tigers are anxious for this year to begin and show what they’ve got to the world. Jordan confirmed the hype, stating, “I think we can really put on a show this year – and show people who Princeton women's basketball is and how much we've grown."