|Princeton coach Courtney Banghart/ AP Photo|
By NICK PERUFFO
PRINCETON — While the Princeton women set out to capture their
fourth-straight Ivy League title this season, another goal, largely
The Tigers stellar senior class — led by Ivy Player of the Year
Niveen Rasheed and two-time Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Lauren
Polansky — has never failed to capture the league crown. After last
year’s heartbreaking, 67-64, loss to eighth-seeded Kansas State in the
first round of the NCAA tournament, however, they are also winless in
their three trips to the Big Dance.
“Fortunately, I don’t have to make the goals,” said head coach
Courtney Banghart at the team’s media day. “They make the goals and I
help them reach them. They want to win the league and get the bid and
make a lot of noise in the non-conference, but that postseason victory
means more to them than I can even put into words.”
Much like forward Ian Hummer on the men’s side, Rasheed is widely
considered the best player in the Ivy League. A 6-foot forward with a
full skill set, her most valuable asset may be the tenacity with which
she plays. Though a bit undersized when matching up against bigger,
major-conference forwards, she has a legitimate shot to keep playing
after she graduates.
“It’s so rare on any level to get a kid like Niveen, in terms of her
motor and what she does,” Banghart said. “We’ve been in contact with a
lot of the WNBA coaches. They’ll be agents at the games. She comes with a
crowd, but she deserves it.”
Polansky — the team’s point guard and Rasheed’s childhood friend
from northern California, who famously talked her into choosing
Princeton — isn’t the same type of scorer, but may be just as valuable
with her ball-handling and pressure defense.
“She guards full court, and she’s incredibly strong,” Banghart said. “She changes the game on the defensive end.”
The Tigers, however, aren’t the same team that came so close against
the Wildcats. Gone are first-team All-Ivy wing Lauren Edwards and
second-team All-Ivy forward Devona Allgood, two huge cogs in the
Princeton machine last season.
To have the same kind of success, they’ll need major contributions
from fellow senior Megan Bowen. A post player who had limited
opportunities last year due to the presence of Allgood, she scored 27
points in the team’s first scrimmage.
“She’s come a long, long way,” Banghart said of Bowen. “She’s
critical to us, and that’s awesome to say. For three years, she’s built
day-by-day to be ready for this year.”
Banghart also singled out two juniors, guard Nicole Hung and forward
Kristen Helmstetter, as players who could make a big impact after years
of guarding some of the Tigers’ best players every day in practice.
They’ll both need to be aggressive with their opportunities.
“I’d like to see everybody else recognize that they are no longer
role players,” Banghart said. “They are pivotal players. As long as we
continue to rebound and be relentless, we’ll get there.”
Though never seriously challenged in the Ivy last season, Harvard may
be the strongest conference foes the Tigers have seen in a while, with
6-foot-4 British Olympian Temi Fagbenle. Despite all their success,
Banghart insists her team isn’t going to look past anyone.
“They are pretty humble,” she said. “It’s the Princeton on our chest
versus whatever else is on their chests. Harvard is much improved in
terms of talent; we’ll see what happens on the floor.”
A quick look at the Tigers’ non-conference schedule shows how serious
they are about competing with major programs. In addition to hosting in
state rival Rutgers, they’ll travel to play road games against UCLA,
Delaware, Villanova and DePaul.
“This is a team that has to learn how to lose,” Banghart said. “Our
schedule is really challenging. We might have to lick our wounds earlier
than we might have had to. It’s worth it if it gets us better.”
If the Tigers can survive that early gauntlet intact, they’ll have a serious chance to win more than another Ivy title.