When the Princeton University women’s basketball team found itself trailing Harvard 44-30 at halftime last Friday, senior co-captain Kristen Helmstetter decided it was time for some words of wisdom.
“I think it was important as a senior that both me and Hung [senior co-captain Nicole Hung] needed to tell our team, it is fine we are good, settle down, and play like Princeton plays,” said Helmstetter.
“We play hard and we play with heart. As long as we do that, we’ll get back into the game and we did that.”
With Helmstetter scoring seven points in the second half, the Tigers cut the Harvard lead to one point on three different occasions in the second half. Princeton, though, couldn’t get over the hump as the Crimson pulled away to a 78-68 win in the early season Ivy League showdown.
Helmstetter acknowledged that four-time Ivy champion Princeton didn’t play hard enough in the first half as it trailed by as much as 31-13 at one point.
“I think where we struggled in the beginning was on the defensive end, we lacked accountability there,” said Helmstetter.
“They are a good offensive team and unfortunately we weren’t on point today on defense and that hurt us.”
The Tigers showed some accountability as they outscored Harvard 38-34 over the last 20 minutes of the contest.
“We came out and won the second half,” said Helmstetter. “We did think the tide was turning. It is a game of runs and unfortunately that came to an end.”
A night later, the tide turned for Princeton as it topped Dartmouth 76-53 while Harvard lost 67-38 at Penn leaving the Tigers at 11-6 overall and 2-1 Ivy while the Crimson moved to 13-5 overall and 3-1 Ivy. Harvard is currently in a three-way tie with Cornell and Yale atop the league while Princeton and Penn are both a half-game behind in fourth.
“Everyone has back-to-back games and some teams deal with it differently,” said Helmstetter, a 6’0 native of nearby Bridgewater who earned second-team All-Ivy honors last winter.
“Each team is going to continue to play Friday, Saturday and we’ll see who comes out on top.”
While Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart wasn’t banking on her team going undefeated in the league, she was surprised to see the Tigers suffer their first Ivy loss at home since February 13, 2009 when they fell 56-54 to Yale at Jadwin.
“I have been in the league a long time; I think it has happened twice in the round robin before the Princeton team so it almost never happens,” said Banghart, noting that the team was rusty, seeing its first game action after a 19-day hiatus for exams.
“I said I hate to burst your bubble but I wasn’t expecting an undefeated run. I was hoping it wouldn’t be at home but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be undefeated and neither will Harvard.”
Banghart did see progress in the second half. “It is always better to be early on defense and late on offense,” said Banghart, who got 16 points from sophomore Michelle Miller in the win over Dartmouth with sophomore Alex Wheatley chipping in 11 points.
“We had it completely reversed; we were late on defense and early on offense. Rebounding is a product of how you defend so I thought in the second half we were much more aggressive.”
With 11 games left in the Ivy campaign, that aggressiveness could pay dividends as the Tigers go for their fifth straight league crown.
“The Ivy League title is won with seniors and on the defensive end so if we are good defensively, we have enough weapons and enough looks to win this thing,” said Banghart, whose team plays at Columbia on February 7 and at Cornell on February 8.
“We just have to shore up our defense. I like our body of work over a 14-game season.”
Helmstetter still likes Princeton’s title chances, noting that there is a lot of basketball to be played.
“All I can do is tell my underclassmen to keep their heads up; it is only one game and one game means nothing,” said Helmstetter.
“People lose games when you play back to back and I think that is a good message for them to know that each night is a new night and to come out with a new mentality and win that next game.”