When Nicole Hung suffered articular cartilage damage to her left knee last winter during her junior campaign with the Princeton University women’s basketball team, her hoops career was in jeopardy.
Undergoing surgery and missing all but five games in 2012-13, Hung started this season hobbled with a brace supporting her left knee, not sure when she would be up to game speed.
Diligently going through rehab, Hung got back on the court and became a key reserve as the Tigers have chased their fifth straight Ivy League title.
As Hung was honored along with classmate Kristen Helmstetter in the program’s annual Senior Night last Saturday, her thoughts turned to the knee injury and the test it has posed.
“In a way I have almost come full circle because I feel in some aspects this year mirrored freshman year for me in some ways, just struggling on the court,” said the 5’11 Hung, a native of Los Angeles, Calif.
“My dad is always saying if you are not pushed enough and if you don’t have enough stress driving you forward then you are going to remain stagnant in life, not just in basketball. The injury definitely has pushed me and challenged me, probably more than anything has with it being senior year and wanting to be out there. It has also helped me see that you can contribute in different ways off the court.”
Last weekend, Hung made a major contribution on the court, scoring 12 points as Princeton topped Cornell 69-46 on Friday and then chipping in 11 points, five rebounds, and two assists as the Tigers routed Columbia 92-48 a night later.
The wins improved Princeton to 20-7 overall and 11-2 Ivy League and set up a rare winner-take-all Ivy title game against Penn (21-6 overall, 11-2 Ivy) slated for March 11 at Jadwin Gym.
For Hung, coming up big was the product of moving better on her injured knee.
“It has been feeling good for the last couple of months,” said Hung, who was later named the Ivy League Player of the Week for her performance, sharing the accolade with Penn’s Sydney Stipanovich. “It has been feeling a lot better in practice and I guess that is where it starts.”
It has felt good for Hung to serve as a team co-captain with classmate Helmstetter.
“We are very different but we are also similar in some ways,” said Hung, who now has 347 points in her Tiger career. “It meshes well, what I am not good at, she is good at and what she doesn’t like to do, I am OK doing. As captains, we fit perfectly together.”
The pair of seniors were hoping for a perfect ending in their Jadwin finale against the Quakers.
“I think the importance of the Penn game, in my mind, is overriding the fact that it is our last game at Jadwin,” said Hung.
“I am just thinking of the game itself, not what it means when the buzzer sounds and it is over. We are just really focused.”
The Tigers brought a heightened focus into last weekend after suffering a stunning 61-58 loss at Brown to begin March.
“It was their senior night last Saturday and I think emotions are elevated always at anyone’s Senior Night,” said Hung.
“Seeing them celebrate everything after that win, we could hear them from our locker room so we were like no one is doing that to us on our Senior Night. We took Cornell and Columbia as seriously as we take any other opponent. Last weekend was really just a reminder that the Ivy League is crazy. It is so unique compared to any other conference.”
For Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart, seeing her team experience its Senior Night triggers mixed emotions.
“Senior Night is always bittersweet; I remember recruiting them, I remember going through the ups and downs with them,” said Banghart.
“You watch them grow as players, people, and leaders so it is always bittersweet and you hope that it is the night that they want. We said before the game that we want the other kids to play in honor of them. These two kids have been all about the program, never about themselves. So it was important to the rest of the team to show them what their hard work has given us, which is a young group that is playing ahead of their years.”
Banghart was particularly pleased to see Hung’s hard work result in a senior weekend to remember.
“I told her in my office about a month ago that it is a matter of time until you come up big,” said Banghart.
“I don’t know when that is going to be. I have been in the league a long time, the league is won by seniors and she played like it this weekend. I think there is a rhythm to playing in games and she wasn’t able to get into that because she was hurt so much. I think now she is just getting longer runs on the court. There is probably an element of I am a senior, I have been here before, I know how this works.”
In reflecting on Helmstetter’s contribution, Banghart marvels at her adaptability.
“Kristen just does whatever we have asked her to do,” said Banghart. ”She practices at the post and plays at the guard, she practices at guard and plays at the post. She plays wherever you need her in the zone. We have had some practices where we had nine players; she’ll be whatever we need her to be. She is versatile. I am surprised that she is so willing to stand out and be a star, that is so out of her character. It has been critical to this team’s growth.”
In Banghart’s view, the Tigers have grown from the loss to Brown. “We had 59 rebounds tonight; a major characteristic of our last weekend was that we didn’t go to the glass,” said Banghart.
“We haven’t been as relentless on the glass as we want to be. We changed up our looks offensively to be a little more relentless on the glass, giving us better positions. I think their commitment to the rebounding has showed. Those are toughness points. If you have got a title on the line, no one is going to give it to you and I think they were tough this weekend.”
In making it to the cusp of another league crown, Princeton has exhibited a mental toughness.
“This group has really needed me, they needed each other,” said Banghart. “We have had to really work together; we have had to grow. We have had to take some hits, we have had to get through injuries. It’s always fun to see anyone that you love succeed and they are succeeding.”
Hung, for her part, has enjoyed her personal growth process. “I think people joke that my freshman year I didn’t speak my first words until November or something like that so I guess on a verbal level I have opened up more,” said Hung, who will be teaching in Thailand next year and hopes to go to medical school after that.
“Being a captain, especially under coach Banghart, requires a lot of communication. I think that journey of saying my first words in November freshmen year to having to lead a team verbally, especially since I haven’t been on the court as much this year, has developed me as a person and is what I will need later in life.”