On January 11, the Princeton University women’s basketball team was all smiles as it left the court at the Palestra after pounding Penn 84-53 in its home gym.
Two months later to the day, the Tiger players slumped on their bench with blank stares as Penn pulled away to an 80-64 win at Jadwin Gym to prevail in a winner-take-all showdown for the Ivy League title.
“To be honest, I think the moment was a little bit big for my youngsters,” said Banghart, reflecting on the March 11 showdown which saw both teams bring 11-2 Ivy records into the regular season finale.
“I think they went into that environment with a lot of great energy and excitement and not a lot of execution, which you would expect. This is a really young team. We have got a young group and I think that was part of it. I think there is the swag that champions have, we are better than you until you show us you are not. I think this group is very humble, which is a good life skill. I don’t think they came out with the swag that we have come to expect here.”
A raucous crowd came out to Jadwin to view the title clash. “This was a really great environment for women’s basketball and the Ivy League,” said Banghart, who had guided Princeton to four straight league crowns coming into the 2013-14 campaign.
“We celebrate that, we want good teams in our league. I am thrilled for their seniors, I am thrilled for their upperclassmen. I said in there, at the end of the game, what are the learning lessons, what we can we take away from an opportunity like this.”
The Tigers, now 20-8 overall, will get an opportunity to keep playing as they will compete in the WNIT where they will host Virginia Commonwealth University (22-9) of the Atlantic 10 on March 20 in an opening round contest with the winner advancing to the second round against the victor of the Seton Hall-American University first round contest.
Coming into the Penn rematch, Banghart had a sense that the Quakers were going to give Princeton a much better game than the January contest.
“I do think that Penn is a really, really good team because they play as hard as us,” said Banghart.
“I don’t think everybody in the league does. They defend. They play two seniors and two juniors a lot, we obviously don’t. I thought it would be a good game. I am not in the business of guessing who is going to win, I never know. We knew we were going to give them a good battle. It was probably the team we have the most respect for.”
In reflecting on the setback, Banghart acknowledged that her team wasn’t at its sharpest.
“I thought defensively we weren’t quite as good as we needed to be but we had a young team, we had a lot to teach,” said Banghart whose team shot 37.5 percent from the field (24-for-64) while the Quakers shot at a 48.2 percent clip (27-for-56).
“Penn zoned us the entire game. We have seen zone straight three games. We scored 161 points this weekend against zone (in beating Cornell 69-46 on March 7 and topping Columbia 92-48 a night later). We played against teams that we knew we were better than and then we played tonight and I guess these guys didn’t think that we were better than them even though we beat them by 31 at their place.”
Princeton senior star and co-captain Kristen Helmstetter acknowledged that the Tigers didn’t display the swagger in the rematch that they had exhibited in January.
“Obviously, that was our first Ivy game of the season and there was a lot of hype going into that,” said Helmstetter, referring to the January 11 game.
“We played really well together and we were really tough. We went into that game confident, knowing that we were the better team, I don’t think that we did that tonight and it showed.”
Helmstetter was proud that the Tigers made it through the Ivy gauntlet to earn a shot at a fifth consecutive title.
“The great thing about the Ivy League is that it is Friday/Saturday,” added Helmstetter.
“Penn lost to Dartmouth, we lost to Brown; those aren’t typical of either of our teams, we both play really hard. The Ivy League can be any given night and I think that it came down to the best two teams in the league and I am happy that we got to play for it on our court.”
The butterflies were dancing in Helmstetter’s stomach as she took the court for the showdown.
“I was a little nervous, for sure but I don’t think that took away from my confidence,” said Helmstetter, who scored nine points in the loss as junior Blake Dietrick led the Tigers with 14 while sophomores Michelle Miller and Annie Tarakchian chipped in 12 apiece.
“We are definitely a young team and games like this require a lot of experience and we didn’t really have that much experience. I am happy that each of our sophomores gained so much valuable experience from this season. We have three starting sophomores, which is so rare. Playing Penn in this game is something special and hopefully they can pay it forward for next year.”
Banghart lauded Helmstetter and fellow senior captain Nicole Hung for inspiring the young Tiger squad that featured five sophomores and three freshmen.
“They took over a team that lost a lot,” said Banghart. “They lost kids who had been their best friends for years and had been teammates for years and they took a really young team. They showed that they believed in it and everybody else believed in it. Playing for an Ivy title the last night with the youth we have is remarkable and it is entirely because of the leadership of my captains.”
In Banghart’s view, the WNIT will provide a good platform for the team to gain some maturity.
“I think it allows us to get more valuable experience,” said Banghart. “It gives us postseason experience, it gives us a chance to win a postseason game. It allows us to cement things; did we get better and can we be proud throughout the season.”