For Courtney Banghart, the point of the non-conference schedule is more about exposing her Princeton University women’s basketball team to a wide range of competitive situations than piling up wins.
But as Princeton girds for its Ivy League opener on January 11 at Penn, the Tigers have gained both victories and experience as they bring a 9-5 record into their clash with the Quakers and start their drive for a fifth straight league crown.
“This team is making its own mark,” said Princeton head coach Banghart. “The difference between rebuilding and reloading depends on the approach of the players and I like the way this team is responding.”
Playing in the Cavalier Classic in late December, Princeton certainly made an impression as it topped Alabama 79-59 to earn its first-ever win over a Southeastern Conference foe and then battled valiantly before falling to 69-57 to host Virginia in the title game.
“Alabama played man-to-man so we had to be more physical,” said Banghart.
“That was a good experience for a young team. We knew that UVa would zone us. The zone required us to move the ball and make shots. It was good for us, it showed us what we need to work on.”
Last Saturday at Drexel in its final tune-up before Ivy play, the Tigers worked on dealing with a zone. Trailing 25-23 at half to the reigning WNIT champs, Princeton outscored the Dragons 43-34 over the final 20 minutes to earn a 66-59 victory.
“We worked on a new zone continuity last week,” said Banghart. “We knew it wasn’t going to work right away. We got it figured out and scored 43 points in the second half.”
A lot of that offense came from Michelle Miller, who poured in a career-high 23 points and was later named the Ivy Player of the Week for the second time this year, sharing the honor with Penn’s Katy Allen.
“She is a sophomore but it doesn’t matter how old you are, it comes down to can you contribute,” said Banghart of Miller, who went 5-of-7 from three-point range in the win.
“She didn’t shoot like she can at Virginia. Against Drexel, she was shot ready and played really well.”
Junior guard Blake Dietrick has been playing really well lately, scoring 18 points last Saturday and having recently been named the Ann Meyers Drysdale Women’s National Player of the Week by the USBWA (U.S. Basketball Writers Association), becoming the first Tiger to ever collect the national accolade.
“Blake is settled,” said Banghart of Dietrick, who is averaging a team-high 15.4 points a game.
“She is so competitive, that can get in the way sometimes. She doesn’t like being bad at anything. She has settled in; she is a good lead guard and she is trusting her teammates.”
Banghart knows her team faces a competitive challenge in Penn, who is currently 7-2, having won seven straight games, including a victory over Miami, the program’s first-ever win against an Atlantic Coast Conference foe.
“They have the most experienced returning team in the league,” said Banghart of the Quakers.
“They are playing at home and our kids have inherited the target on their backs. The other teams are going to throw everything at us, they know that beating us can make a season even if they don’t win the title.”
The Quakers boast the talent to make things difficult for Princeton in senior guard and two-time Ivy scoring champion Alyssa Baron, freshman center Sydney Stipanovich, senior guard Meghan McCullough, and sophomore guard Keira Ray.
“Baron is one of the best players in the league and she has been since day one,” said Banghart.
“She has more pieces around her now so she doesn’t have to do everything. Stipanovich has a lot of size, she is 6’3 and long. They have a very experienced point guard Meghan McCullough, who is back from an injury. Keiera Ray is a good player. They have played together forever.”
The Tigers will be working overtime to get ready for the Quakers. “We have the rest of the week to prepare for them,” said Banghart.
“The Ivy season requires consistency, either the consistency of a few top players or the group. We are more of a team. It is a league for seniors so we need Kristen [Helmstetter] and Nicole [Hung] to make contributions. We are going to see a variety of things, zone, man and junk. We have to get enough from our pieces and be able to adjust.”
In Banghart’s view, her young squad has the mindset to roll with the punches it will receive in Ivy play.
“This team has a great personality,” asserted Banghart. “They are humble and there are no expectations. They just expect to battle everyday. Their job is to play hard and listen and our job is to coach them.”