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PU Women’s Hoops Dealing With Injuries But Hopes to Gain From the Experience

AT THE HELM: Princeton University women’s basketball player Kristen Helmstetter drives past a foe in a game earlier this season. Junior forward Helmstetter has been averaging 13.0 points a game since entering the starting lineup to replace the injured Nicole Hung in late November. Last Wednesday, Helmstetter, a Bridgewater, N.J. native, scored 11 points in a losing cause as Princeton fell 61-54 at Villanova. The Tigers, now 6-4, hit the road to play at Illinois State (6-3) on December 19 and DePaul (8-3) on December 21 before heading into the holiday break. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

When the Princeton University women’s basketball team played at Villanova last Wednesday, the Tigers didn’t show their usual zip in the early going.

Digging an early 15-8 hole, the Tigers trailed the Wildcats 26-18 at halftime. In the second half, Princeton fell behind by 14 before making a late rally that narrowed the Villanova lead to 47-43 with 5:43 left in regulation. But that was as close as the Tigers got in falling 61-54.

While Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart was disappointed that her team didn’t complete the rally, she liked the resolve her players displayed in bouncing back from the subpar first half.

“That was the first time we came out slowly this year,” said Banghart, whose team dropped to 6-4 with the loss.

“We have been ahead by 10 in most of our games, even at UCLA [a 65-52 loss on November 25], we were up 12-2. It was good to see us come back after a 10 or 15 minute break at halftime and play much better. It means that we could be playing poorly before the first television timeout later this season and then adjust quickly after that.”

Health issues have forced Princeton to adjust as the squad recently lost starter Nicole Hung to a season-ending knee injury with other players such as Lauren Polansky, Annie Tarakchian, Alex Wheatley, and Mariah Smith each having dealt with nagging problems.

“We have really been hit by the injury bug,” said Banghart. “We have a lot of people banged up and people missing practice. We barely have enough for 5-on-5 at practice. It bodes well for the Ivy season, the freshmen and sophomores are getting experience.”

The injury issues have given such members of the supporting cast as junior forward Kristen Helmstetter and sophomore Blake Dietrich the chance to shine.

“Kristen is really a great example for the program,” said Banghart of the 6’0 Helmstetter, who has been averaging 13.0 points a game since replacing Hung in the starting lineup.

“We recruit talented, versatile players and they get better while they play for us. She has built her skill set. Dietrich is getting a lot better. It was good for her to have the week to work on her game.”

The team’s veterans have been key in helping the younger players get better. “We have a lot of maturity in the group,” added Banghart.

“They knew we were pretty depleted and going with a lot of inexperience. They appreciated that situation. They are bummed out over the off-court injuries.”

The Tigers will be looking to get some good experience this week as they hit the road to play at Illinois State (6-3) on December 19 and DePaul (8-3) on December 21 before heading into the holiday break.

“We are playing two very good teams and that is what we want,” said Banghart. “No matter what the results are, this is the schedule that they wanted. We just need to be really good by the end of January.”

In Banghart’s view, having been forced to juggle the lineup in the early going should help Princeton achieve that goal.

“I can honestly say that we are a better team than last year,” maintained Banghart, whose 2011-12 team went 24-5 overall and 14-0 in Ivy League play on the way to its third straight league crown.

“We have more weapons, we have more depth. The freshmen and sophomores aren’t just getting in when we are ahead by 30. They are getting in close games. There is no way that doesn’t help us down the road.”

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