After ending the regular season with a disappointing loss to Penn in a winner-take-all clash for the Ivy League title, the Princeton University women’s basketball team was excited to host Virginia Commonwealth University in the WNIT last Thursday.
“We wanted to show that Tuesday was not us,” said Princeton sophomore forward Alex Wheatley, referring to the 80-64 loss to the Quakers on March 11.
“I think we just wanted to come out and make a statement and get our first postseason win.”
Wheatley’s classmate, Annie Tarakchian, was equally determined heading into the contest.
“It is tough because you invest so much time and you love the game so much,” said Tarakchian.
“I think everybody realized that we have this opportunity and we should just take advantage of it and we can’t sulk over what we lost.”
Wheatley and Tarakchian took full advantage of their opportunity, producing double-doubles as Princeton pulled away to a 94-76 win over VCU to advance in a postseason tournament for the first time in program history after four previous appearances in the NCAA and one in the WNIT.
Wheatley scored a team-high and career-high 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds while Tarakchian contributed career highs in points (18) and rebounds (12).
“Coach [Courtney Banghart] said to push it inside and I think she just wanted us all to be really aggressive and that was what I was trying to do,” said Wheatley, reflecting on her effort.
For Tarakchian, coming up so big as she made her first career start was a matter of taking care of business.
“I didn’t feel different; I knew I had to bring and what I had to do,” said Tarakchian.
Losing our senior captain [Kristen Helmstetter] for such a big game is definitely a dagger. We knew that each of us had to bring our own game. We worked really well together so I think we were all able to do what we had to do.”
Wheatley was thrilled about the program’s postseason breakthrough. “We were excited to play and it is great to get our first postseason win,” said Wheatley.
In Tarakchian’s view, the victory wasn’t just important for the current Tiger players.
“We didn’t just do it for ourselves, we did it for the whole program,” asserted Tarakchian, a native of West Hills, Calif.
While Princeton’s postseason run ended when it dropped a 75-74 nailbiter at Seton Hall last Sunday despite a 34-point outburst by sophomore Michelle Miller, Tiger head coach Courtney Banghart saw the win over VCU as a major step forward.
“We always say in the postseason, you play for your program at that point,” said Banghart, whose team finished the winter with an overall record of 21-9.
“There were a lot of kids before them that didn’t get a chance to play in the postseason. There are other kids who didn’t get a chance to own in the postseason. In March, you play for your program and our kids certainly did that tonight. It is so great.”
Princeton did a great job in the second half as it broke open a contest that was knotted 36-36 at halftime.
“I was surprised with how much we were able to own the tempo of the game,” said Banghart, whose team shot 53.6 percent (15-of-28) from the field in the second half.
“I am more surprised that the moment wasn’t too big. This is a really young team and that’s a really good team and so are we. It’s hard with our youth to know what to expect.”
Banghart expected the Tigers to improve in the wake of the loss to Penn.
“I think we are just better; we talked about the pace of our passing which I thought was much better tonight,” said Banghart, whose team piled up 20 assists on the evening.
“We were zinging the ball around. We went to some more sets against the zone so that took the freedom out of their hands a little bit and let them settle in. The pieces were better. One of the things we told them after the Penn game was that you all know this, to a man, you were disappointed that your part didn’t help the whole.”
The 6’2 Wheatley, who hails from Upper Holland, Pa., was a big piece for the Tigers against VCU. “She was great, she is growing up,” said Banghart of Wheatley who scored 15 points in the loss to Seton Hall.
“I thought she asked for the ball. We have asked her to be more assertive and I thought she was tonight.”
Tarakchian has been more assertive over the last month, emerging as a key inside threat for the Tigers.
“I am not surprised at all; I am really happy for her because she trusted in the process,” said Banghart of the 6’0 Tarakchian’s recent surge which saw her average 14 points and 9.2 rebounds a game in Princeton’s last four contests.
“That is real easy to talk about now but it is hard to do when all the rest of the class is playing. I think she will just keep getting better.”
Wheatley, for part, believes the team’s sophomore class, which includes guard Amanda Berntsen and forward Taylor Williams, is poised to have a big impact on the program.
“I love my class; I love our team in general,” said Wheatley. “We have great chemistry. I think the sophomores are a balanced group. I think we have contributed this year.”
Tarakchian is equally optimistic. “It is just so fun to see what will come in the future,” said Tarakchian. “To see the freshmen coming in today and putting their part in. I think we just all know that we bring a different piece.”