For senior star Kristen Helmstetter, there was high emotion as she hit the floor last Saturday for the Princeton University women’s basketball team when it played at Penn in the Ivy League opener.
“It is exciting; it is the last time around and it means a little bit more,” said Helemstetter, reflecting on starting her final Ivy campaign.
“You can appreciate what it meant to seniors before that. I am just happy that we have the team that we have that will fight for me and Hung [fellow senior Nicole Hung] and fight every game one at a time.”
Facing a sizzling Penn team that brought an eight-game winning streak into the contest, Princeton knew it was in for a battle.
Delivering a knockout blow to the Quakers with a 16-0 run midway through the first half, Princeton cruised to an 84-53 rout of Penn and began its drive for a fifth straight Ivy crown in style.
Tiger junior guard Blake Dietrick saw Princeton’s grit as the key to the victory.
“I thought we played great, I thought we came out really strong,” said Dietrick, who scored 16 points and had 10 rebounds, earning her first double-double in an Ivy game and later getting named as the league’s Player of the Week.
“We knew coming in that Penn was a team that doesn’t give up and we were ready to fight for 40 minutes. I think we really wore them down with our toughness and that’s what we have been focusing on the entire year.”
Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart sensed that her team was focused on the task at hand.
“We have been waiting almost a calendar year for our Ivy opener,” said Banghart, whose team improved to 10-5 overall and 1-0 in Ivy play with the victory.
“We prepared all year long for the chance to go to the NCAA tournament and this is the first test of the 14-game tournament. Our kids are getting ready for exams. They are obviously pretty inexperienced with only two of their most experienced players playing. We just don’t make excuses. It is an opportunity to play. It is an opportunity to compete. I thought it was a convincing win from start to finish. I thought we played with great toughness.”
Princeton certainly displayed its competitive fire as it reeled off 16 unanswered points to wipe out an early 7-5 deficit and crush Penn’s spirit.
When asked what sparked the 16-0 run Banghart said “I thought it was the ways in which our kids defended.”
“We asked them to defend early, disciplined, and active. Penn is a tough team to guard. They are big, they are versatile and they cut hard. It is a tough team to guard and our kids bought into the defensive end tremendously and that led to easier offensive looks. Our kids made plays on the offensive end but we played tough on the defensive end and I think that was the key.”
In Banghart’s view, getting her team battle-tested through a tough non-conference schedule was another key to the performance on Saturday.
“This was not the biggest game on our schedule and I think that is really important for the Ivy League season,” asserted Banghart.
“Our kids have been in a lot of challenging environments, we have been on the other side of those runs. We have learned how to start runs, we have learned how to stop runs. This is a game that was won because of how we practice and how we played in the non-conference. It wasn’t just won today.”
The contest was also won through a balanced attack that saw 11 players score with Helmstetter chipping in 17 points and Alex Wheatley adding 11 to lead the way along with Dietrick and her 16-point effort.
“You look at Blake and Kristen, their lines are ridiculous and the way that they practice is even more ridiculous but we got contributions from the group today,” said Banghart.
“We got key minutes from key people, including the other senior, Nicole Hung (six points, three rebounds, a steal, and an assist in 10 minutes). You can look at the stat sheet and say it wasn’t like these guys’ game but it is what we needed. This felt like a win where we were going to need everybody and it bodes well if these freshmen are getting better and these sophomores are getting better. It was a Princeton team win for sure, which I am proud of.”
With the team going on exam break, Banghart is going to let her players catch their breath before they resume action by hosting Harvard on January 31 and Dartmouth on February 1.
“We are on tomorrow and then off for the next few days and then they get through exams and then we’ll get to working on getting better,” said Banghart.
“We are not going to make them think about everybody else. We are going to let them think about their exams and enjoy this win.”
Dietrick, for her part, believes the Tigers can get even better during the break.
“We have three weeks off and then Harvard,” said Dietrick. “It is great because the amount we have gotten better as a team in practice is exponential. By the time those three weeks are over we are going to be so much better than we are today and that’s our goal, just to get better everyday in practice.”
Helmstetter is confident that Princeton won’t waver in pursuit of its championship goal.
“I think one of things we were talking about the most is that every game up until now is just the journey and now it is just one game at a time for the Ivy League title,” said Helmstetter.
“We take it one game at a time and we came out tonight ready to play Penn and not thinking about anything else and we did what we intended to do.”
In the wake of the dominating performance on Saturday, the Tigers have made their intentions clear.