In one respect, Lauren Polansky has experienced an agonizing winter in her final season with the Princeton University women’s basketball team.
The gritty point guard and two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year has been slowed by stress fractures in both feet.
“It was really hard sitting out so many games and not practicing,” said the 5’8 Polansky, a native of Mill Valley, Calif., who was sidelined for four games due to injury and was relegated to a reserve role for several others.
“Getting back into it you lose some of your confidence and aggressive mentality so that was hard to turn around.”
Last Saturday, it was hard for Polansky to hold back the tears as she and her classmates went through the Senior Night ceremony when Princeton hosted Brown in their final Jadwin Gym appearance.
“It hadn’t really sunk in, the depth of it, until right before the game when we are all putting our stuff on in the locker room and we were about to walk up and it all kind of hit me at once,” said Polansky, who was honored along with teammates Niveen Rasheed, Kate Miller, and Meg Bowen together with team manager Amanda Roman.
“I thought I was going to be crying and then I saw my mother crying. I was like you have enough emotion for the both of us; I am going to have to keep it together. I thought I was going to be the one senior bawling. The beginning of the game was a little hard, emotions were running tough. We were thinking more about that than the actual game. Our heads were kind of in the clouds a bit.”
The Tigers settled down, pulling away to an 80-51 win over the Bears and clinching their fourth straight Ivy League title in the process. As a result, the players’ heads ended up high above the Jadwin floor as they climbed a ladder one by one to cut down the net in celebrating the crown.
“There is no better way to go out,” said Polansky, reflecting on the victory which improved Princeton to 21-6 overall and 12-1 Ivy.
“We are really fortunate that it ended today. We were upset by the loss [a 58-55 defeat to Harvard on March 1] but it gave us the opportunity to finish it in this way. It was an incredible way to go out; I wouldn’t have it any other way with the families, friends here. It was an amazing atmosphere.”
It has been been an incredible journey for Polansky and her fellow seniors who are the winningest class in Ivy women’s hoops history with an overall record of 95-19 and and an Ivy mark of 53-2.
“We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” said Polansky. “We were the first class to have all of the players stay and nobody quit since we have been here. I just think that says a lot about the heart and the commitment that everyone has and the true love of the game and each other. The one surprise is that it hasn’t been easy this entire time. You think you are dominating but there have been some ups and downs and I think we have really been able to pull each other through it together. There is a huge bond. One day I will be down and the others will pull me up and the next day, it will be the other way around. I couldn’t be happier ending it with these girls tonight.”
That bond drove Polansky to be a positive force even as she was benched by her foot woes.
“As a captain, that’s what you have to do, you have to put the team first and you do what you need to do to help everyone out,” said Polansky.
“I am feeling good, the time off really helped and this is the time to get going.”
Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart, for her part, feels very good about what her senior class has accomplished.
“They took a real risk on me as a young head coach; they bought in right away to what I was doing,” said Banghart.
“It is easy in this type of moment to think how fun it is but it is a long season, there are a lot of ups and downs to competitive sports where you battle each other everyday, you fight for playing time. The way these guys have stayed cohesive, stayed competitive, and stayed successful is unbelievable.”
In Banghart’s view, it is pretty unbelievable to have won four straight Ivy crowns.
“It is rare because it is really hard to do and it involves a lot of moving parts,” said Banghart, a former star guard at Dartmouth who helped the Big Green win two Ivy crowns during her playing days.
“It involves trusting a long process and patience when things are hard; getting punched in the face and bouncing back. I know how hard it is to do it and I am just really happy for them.”
Banghart is not surprised by how Polansky bounced back from her foot problems.
“I think all of the seniors have their own mantra and for her, it is just that in a lot of ways she is the glue for the team,” said Banghart.
“That is a special quality of hers and it has never been about her but it has been about cutting the nets down and she has done it four times.”
The team’s special qualities were lauded by Princeton basketball legend Bill Bradley, who spoke to the Tigers on Friday after they topped Yale 77-44 to clinch a share of the league title.
“I thought what was neat was that over about 15 minutes he said three things,” recalled Banghart.
“He said the way that this team shares the ball is really special, which coming from someone like him that means a lot. The second thing he said is the toughness that we showed on the defensive end was a pleasure and is the best he has seen. Then the third thing he said is watching the team on the floor and watching their replacements on the bench celebrate each other is what athletics is about.”
Having seen Princeton go 0-3 in its previous NCAA tournament appearances, Banghart is hungry to celebrate a win in March Madness.
“I don’t think we have played well yet in the NCAA tournament so we have to play well,” said Banghart, whose team was slated to wrap up regular season play with a game at Penn (16-11 overall, 9-4 Ivy) on March 12 and will learn its NCAA assignment during the March 18 selection show.
“It is a 40-minute game. We don’t have to be the better team over the course of the year, we have to be the better team for those 40 minutes. So far, we are 0-for-3 in being the better team for 40 minutes. I think we will play better, we are more experienced. We are also deeper which helps.”
In Polansky’s view, the Tigers are primed for an NCAA breakthrough. “In the first couple of years I think it was the big stage that really got us and not really knowing what to do, the inexperience of the group,” said Polansky, who has piled up 389 rebounds, 278 assists, and 203 steals in her career.
“I think with four out of five senior starters along with Kristen [Helmstetter] who has come on in a huge way, there is experience. You never know who you are going to get matched up against, where you are going to be, and how you are going to play that day but I am really liking the group we are coming into it with. I think that having our past three years experience is definitely going to work in our favor.”
It certainly works in Princeton’s favor to have the resilient Polansky up and running again at point guard.