Lauren Polansky knew what she was getting into as the Princeton University women’s basketball team prepared to play Rutgers while Kristen Helmstetter had no idea that she was destined to emerge as a star of the contest.
For senior point guard Polansky, facing Rutgers meant dealing with its trademark stifling, in-your-face defense.
“Rutgers has a great press; that is how they get going in their offense; getting things going fast with tons of turnovers,” said Polansky.
“That’s what ignites them; we knew that going in. We have been working on playing five versus six in practice so I think that really helped us. Personally, I knew that I would have the ball in my hands and as a point guard, I would be taking the brunt of that pressure.”
Helmstetter, a junior forward who had zero career starts coming into the clash last Thursday night, was thrust into the limelight in the wake of an injury to classmate Nicole Hung.
“I found out late last night that I was getting the start,” said Helmstetter. “It was unfortunate that Nicole got hurt but we got together as a team and really wanted to get this win for her and the whole team in general.”
Princeton made it clear from the opening tip-off at Jadwin Gym that it was intent on winning and breaking its 14-game losing streak in the battle of local rivals. The Tigers raced out to a 30-11 lead, putting the proud Scarlet Knights on their heels.
The 6’0 Helmstetter played a key role in the early surge, scoring six points and grabbing two rebounds in the first half.
“Today was my day,” said Helmstetter, reflecting on an evening which saw the Tigers unveil the banner for winning the Ivy League crown last year, the third straight for the program.
“Everyone has their on days and their off days and we just have to work as a team and capitalize on who is on that day.”
In the second half, the Scarlet Knights turned up the pressure, cutting a 25-point lead to 12 but it wasn’t enough as Princeton posted a 71-55 triumph before a crowd of 1,036.
Polansky acknowledged that the Tigers had to weather a storm in the second half.
“Good teams are going to go on runs, they are not going to lay down and die,” said Polansky, who scored only one point but ended the evening with game-highs in rebounds (9), assists (7), and steals (3).
“After the first half, we knew they were going to make adjustments and we had to adjust to that. When they went on their run, luckily we were able to stop them and go on a run of our own.”
It was sweet for the Tigers to break their losing streak in the series. “It is a long-standing rivalry for us,” said the 5’8 Polansky, a native of Mill Valley, Calif. who is the two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year.
“Having them in our home gym with a good crowd with our seniors from last year coming back for the banner unveiling. It was really special for us. I think just all around, it was a great environment for us to play in.”
Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart applauded the great effort she got from her players.
“I thought all night we had more energy than them,” asserted Banghart, who got 17 points from precocious freshman Alex Wheatley in the win with senior star Niveen Rasheed chipping in 15 points and seven rebounds.
“I thought we attacked their pressure versus breaking it before we had the clock on our side and that was huge.”
It was huge for Banghart and Princeton to have Polansky on their side. “LP came out and took care of the ball and set the tone with our offense,” said Banghart.
“She is just as tough as they come. She rebounded for her position. She stuck to the game plan, she held her teammates accountable. If there was a game ball, I would give it to LP.”
Banghart wasn’t surprised that Helmstetter proved that she has game. “Kristen can take care of the ball,” said Banghart.
“She has to play angles well and read the game well and she did both of the things masterfully tonight.”
Although Princeton hasn’t beaten Rutgers since 1976, the Tiger players didn’t get overly emotional in their post-game celebration.
“This is a business as usual group,” said Banghart, who earned the 100th win of her six-season Princeton tenure last Sunday as the Tigers routed UMBC 93-46 to improve to 5-2.
“They know that until January we have to figure out who we are. I hope they enjoy this one. The have a day off tomorrow so maybe they are more excited about that.”
Helmstetter, a former star at Bridgewater-Raritan High, certainly enjoyed playing a key role in beating Rutgers.
“It feels good; I am 10 minutes away from Rutgers so they are a team I have grown up watching,” said Helmstetter.
“It is just great to get that win against them. I know a lot of people on their team as does Kate Miller and Amanda Berntsen (both New Jersey natives). We have grown up with those players and then played against them in high school. It is good to see them and play against them.”
Polansky believes the win is a sign of good things to come for the Tigers, who came into the evening still smarting from a 65-52 loss at No. 19 UCLA on November 25.
“This is a really great win for us, especially after last week,” said Polansky, who will look to keep the Tigers on the winning track as they host Hofstra on December 5 before playing at Delaware on December 9.
“We have a tough preseason schedule which I think is wonderful. It gets us ready for our league and post-season play, if we are lucky. I think that is just a great step forward, proving that we are getting better everyday. It shows that all of our hard work in practice is paying off.”