Last March, the Princeton University women’s basketball team took a ninth seed into the NCAA tournament and lost a 67-64 heartbreaker to No. 8 Kansas State.
On Monday evening, four-time Ivy League champion Princeton (22-6 overall, 13-1 Ivy League) learned that it has earned a ninth-seed in the NCAA tourney for the second straight year and will be heading to Waco, Texas to face No. 8 Florida State (22-9 overall, 11-7 ACC) on Sunday in the first round of the Oklahoma City regional. The winner of that game will likely face defending national champion Baylor (32-1) in the next round as the No. 1 Bears are heavily favored to defeat 16 seed Prairie View (17-14) in their NCAA opener.
Senior forward Kate Miller, for her part, believes that last year’s disappointment has laid the foundation for success this March.
“Going in as a nine seed last year and playing the 8-9 matchup and losing by three, although it is a heartbreaker, it definitely gives us a ton of confidence going forward,” said Miller.
“Coming off the loss last year, that’s where we were and that’s where we want to be. I think that is the best seed we can ask for.”
In Miller’s view, having suffered a loss in Ivy play this winter for the first time since February, 2011 along with surviving a couple of close calls should help the Tigers.
“We had the loss against Harvard, we had the tough games against Penn and Dartmouth; to not just breeze through like we have been, that’s been great prep for us,” said Miller, a 6’0 native of Rumson, N.J. who is averaging 5.8 points and 3.4 rebounds a game this season.
“I think what we learned from the past three trips to the tournament is that it is not going to be an Ivy League game. You have to remind yourself how it feels to play from behind and to value every possession. That is something that we lose sight of once we get out of the preseason; we have had those tough games.”
With Princeton having lost in its previous three trips to the Big Dance, Miller believes it needs to be tougher mentally to prevail this time. “We need to be poised and treat it like any other game,” said Miller.
“You know we are going to be playing far from home so we are not going to have the fan group we are used to but to just treat it like it is nothing different. One thing our coach has been telling us is execute first and emotion second. I think that is going to be huge. It is such a big stage and there is so much excitement going into it. If we let that take us out of our stuff, it is not going to go the way we want. I think we need to get down there and get settled the first two days we are there and then really just focus on us.”
Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart likewise believes that tasting defeat in Ivy play and going 9-5 in a challenging non-conference slate will work to Princeton’s advantage.
“We are not going to be winning by 20 at half, I promise you that,” said Banghart.
“So to have played in close environments and close games, I think that will help us. I told this team at the end of the Penn game, we are more battle-tested than we have been and we are deeper and those two things are important in the NCAA tournament.”
The Tigers will face a deep and talented team in Florida State. “They are pretty guard-oriented; they are pretty senior-oriented,” said Banghart in assessing the Seminoles who is coached by Sue Semrau and features three All-ACC performers in senior guards Alexa Deluzio and Leonor Rodriguez and junior forward Natasha Howard.
“Their two leading scorers are guards. Their coach is one of the best in our game. You are not going to get a bad team in the NCAA tournament and they are certainly no exception.”
In the wake of Princeton’s season-ending 60-44 win over Penn on March 12, the Tigers have been focusing on speeding up their offense. “We have worked entirely on the pace of our offense,” noted Banghart.
“I thought we were playing too slow the last two weeks of the season so we worked on getting the east and west side of the court to play together and improve our pace. We have to just make sure that we don’t get going too fast now.”
Banghart knows her team can’t afford to get carried away emotionally when it returns to the big stage of March Madness.
“I thought when we played the home Harvard game, I wrote on the board, let’s execute first and be emotional second,” said Banghart.
“I think that is an important thing to carry into the tournament. The emotions are natural but we have to execute well. We are not going to change who we are, we don’t execute perfectly. We are going to play hard, we are going to defend, we are going to share the ball, we are going to celebrate each other. We are going to try to make some plays.”
Princeton is looking for some big plays from its corps of seniors which includes two-time Ivy Player of the Year Niveen Rasheed, three-time Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Lauren Polansky, and Meg Bowen, together with Miller.
“I think the athletic mortality of seniors is something that can’t be overstated,” asserted Banghart.
“It is win or go home now for the seniors; I hope I can manage it well with them. I think what they took away from it last year is that some of their best friends were done. That’s hard, that it is over for you.”
Miller, for her part, doesn’t think things are going to end on Sunday for her and fellow seniors.
“This is it,” said Miller. “We have our preseason meetings and we set our goals and the No. 1 thing now is no longer just getting to the tournament, it is getting that first round win. I know for us seniors there is so much pride, heart, and dedication. We put four long years into this team, to go in with this much confidence, to get the win is the only outcome we are going to push for.”