Heading into the game, the final words women’s basketball head coach Courtney Banghart told her players in the locker room were, “You’re champions. Now go out there and play like it.”
Boy, did they ever.
The Princeton Tigers matched up against a Penn team known for its physical front court and historic excellence. Winners of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament, the Quakers were hoping to win the tournament for the second straight year against the Tigers, snatching away an NCAA berth from the No. 1 seed in the Ivy League. On their home court, the Quakers survived a thrilling game against Harvard and went into the game against the Tigers hoping their momentum and physicality would win the day.
Then the Tigers stepped on the court.
Winning 63–34 and sweeping the season series against their rivals from the city of brotherly love, Princeton dominated the Ivy League Tournament final from start to finish. The game gave Princeton fans flashbacks of the epic 2014-2015 team that went 30–0 in the regular season. The Tigers made sure no one stole away their NCAA Tournament bid and, when the final horn sounded, began to celebrate something that they have been working towards for the last 364 days.
“We said at the beginning of the year that we were going to take care of business,” said sophomore guard/forward Bella Alarie, who was named MVP of the Ivy League Tournament. “That was our team motto, and we certainly did it. We did it this year.” Right out of the gate, the Tigers challenged the Penn defense with open looks from the perimeter. Hallmarked by their physicality in the paint and ability to dominate the glass, the Quakers were simply out-worked on the boards for the entire game, as Princeton continued to win offensive rebounds, generate second chance opportunities, and find open looks from beyond the arc. The Tigers finished with 48 total rebounds and 12 offensive ones; in contrast, the Quakers only had 31 total rebounds
“That’s always our first goal, to have our defensive play come before our offensive play,” Alarie explained. “We just had such great defense today we were blocking shots we were communicating … and our defense led to our offense.”
The beneficiary of this defensive performance was freshman guard Abby Meyers, who earned All Ivy Tournament Team Honors after her dominant performance. She finished with a game high 18 points on nearly 50 percent shooting and scored 11 in a row for the Tigers as they opened a 24–3 lead early in the second.
“I got to give it to my teammates for getting me those open looks,” Meyers said after the game. “I want to win for the seniors and I want to make every shot I attempt and to win it for them is just amazing.”
Perhaps the only time Penn threatened Princeton in the game came midway through the second quarter when the Quakers scored seven in a row to cut the lead to 24–10. But then freshman guard Carlie Littlefield — the three-point specialist in Princeton’s semi-final victory over Yale — hit a three-pointer to stop the Penn run. By halftime, the Tigers were back up by 19 points.
The second half proved to be much of the same. As the Tigers continued to contest every Quaker shot, Penn simply could not make enough baskets to climb back into the game. The Quakers improved upon their dismal 7.1 shooting percentage from the first quarter minimally for the rest of the game, ending with a shooting clip of 22.2 percent. As the game got closer to its finish, the Orange and Black fans who made the trip continued to get louder until they finally had their opportunity to storm the court with their champion Tigers.
“I’m so proud to be a Tiger today,” Alarie continued, beaming after the game, “and I am so excited to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
The Ivy League win and the ensuing NCAA Tournament berth nearly completes the legacy of this senior class. As freshman on that 2014-2015 dream team, the seniors will be returning to the big dance after winning the Ivy League Tournament for the Tigers and capping off a year’s worth of work to get back to this position.
“I’ll remember this team for different reasons,” said Banghart. “I’ll never forget this one for the senior leadership and the power of how your team plays to the personality of your seniors.”
The Tigers are grabbing their dancing shoes and heading back to the NCAAs later this month. The team’s opponent has yet to be determined; according to the latest updates in ESPN’s Bracketology, the Tigers are projected as a 12 seed and will play the fifth seeded Maryland Terrapins in Athens, Ga. The official bracket will come out today at 7 p.m.
“There are some matchups I like better than others,” Banghart continued, “but the matchup I like the best is Bella being aggressive, Abby shooting the ball well, and Leslie at the high post.”
Banghart alluded to the power of the Ivy League Tournament in preparing her team for potential NCAA matchups.
“At this [the Ivy League Tournament] there are only good teams left,” explained Banghart. “Playing Yale and then playing Penn on their home floor and beating both, I think it has given us some good preparation moving forward.”
In a few days, the Tigers will be looking ahead, attempting to cement their legacy in a NCAA Tournament run.
“It’s a dream come true,” Meyers said after the game. “I’m so excited for the NCAA Tournament, and I’m just going to take in every second of it.”