The team to beat: women’s hoops prepares to fend off Ivy challengers| Nov 8, 2018
Last season the Tigers proved they were the best of the Ivy League. With only two conference losses, the women’s basketball team capped its domination of the league with a 63–34 victory over Penn, suffocating the Quakers on defense and snatching the Ivy League trophy from them.
With a 29-point victory in the championship game, it’s unsurprising that they will be considered the team to beat this season; the question is whether they are prepared to fend off the rest of the league.
The Tigers have not yet been in this position with this set of players. In 2015, the Tigers came very close to winning the league, only to have their hearts broken at home on the final day of the season as Penn ended a 12-game winning streak for the Tigers and stole the Ivy League title. The following season, the Tigers clawed their way through an up-and-down season to earn a spot in the Ivy League Tournament, then upset Harvard and advanced to the championship game, where they were once again bested by Penn.
But last season, there was little question as to who the best team in the league was. Princeton stormed its way through the conference, losing only to Harvard and Yale. In the Ivy League tournament, a win over Yale set up the third Princeton versus Penn game with a championship on the line yet again. This time, the outcome favored the Tigers, and for the Class of 2019, the effort to defend their first Ivy League Title was on.
For the ninth straight season, the Tigers were ranked in the top two of the Ivy League preseason poll; this time, they received 14 of the 17 first place votes, with Penn placing second. We may well be headed for the fourth Princeton versus Penn game.
For the first time in the Class of 2019’s career, the Tigers’ roster poses some big questions. Obviously, the losses for the Tigers are enormous. First came the inevitable departure of last year’s senior class, highlighted by Leslie Robinson ’18, who now plays professionally in Europe. Then the Tigers were hit with two crushing blows to their roster, losing standout sophomore Abby Meyers for the year while junior phenomenon Bella Alarie, one of the projected favorites to win the Katrina McClain award for the NCAA’s best power forward, broke her arm a few weeks ago in practice. The star will not be rushed back into play, according to a statement release by head coach Courtney Banghart a few days ago. With the loss of their core leader, a versatile deep threat and a lockdown power forward, the Tigers clearly have some holes to fill.
Instead of seeing this situation as an excuse to fall behind, the team believes that this is an opportunity to get even further ahead. During the annual Princeton basketball media day, Banghart likened her team to “climbers,” noting “there’s no woe-is-me attitude — there’s not even any rah-rah about next man up, really. These guys are just individually climbing their own journeys and coming together for the senior leadership.” With the team’s theme being “rise as one,” the Tigers are optimistic about the valuable experience younger players will have during the earlier parts of the season.
Understandably, this season will be about younger players stepping up. This goes not just for first-years beginning their careers as Tigers, but also underclassmen who will become leaders and mentors for these young faces. One key player in this role will be sophomore Carlie Littlefield. Known for her clutch perimeter shots last season, she will also be called upon as a leader for the team this year. Littlefield acknowledged, “I think my biggest role this year is to use my voice on and off the court.”
Last season, the Tigers certainly confirmed the notion that “defense wins championships.”
Princeton led the Ivy League last season in defense, holding opponents to just over 55 points a game and a shooting clip of just 36.8 percent. The lockdown defense and second-chance opportunities allowed the Tigers to keep the game in their control, even when the offense wasn’t clicking. This season, that same defensive mindset will be led by senior Sydney Jordan. Relentless on defense and down low, Alarie called Jordan “the toughest player to be guarded by” on the Tigers and jokingly noted, “I wish it was anyone else guarding me during practice.” Jordan explained how the defensive work the team puts in helps build team chemistry: “We work hard, we run, we support each other, and it just makes the team fun to play with.”
The team will get things going with a non-conference slate featuring many other teams from the Northeast, including Seton Hall and Penn State. They already have one non-conference win, an impressive 89–65 win over Rider, but the biggest test will come over Thanksgiving break, when the Tigers will travel to Cancún, Mexico to take on two ranked opponents in DePaul and Syracuse and one more Power 5 opponent in Kansas State. The Tigers will be looking forward to that event to see how they stack up against other NCAA Tournament hopefuls. Following that, the Tigers will spend December playing non-conference games mostly away from the friendly confines of Jadwin Gymnasium. The Ivy season starts with a bang on Jan. 5, when the Tigers host Penn in a matchup that will set the tone for the Ivy League’s race to the top.
Despite the roster uncertainties and its youth, the team is confident in its skill set and ready to work towards establishing its own identity. The Tigers are not shying away from defending their first title in three years. “We’re exactly where we should be,” said Coach Banghart. “Probably ahead of where we should be.”