Smith Developing a Comfort Level in Starting Role As PU Women’s Hoops Girds for Ivy Opener at Penn
ON THE BALL: Princeton University women’s basketball player Vanessa Smith goes up for the ball last Sunday in Princeton’s 79-55 win over visiting Hampton in its final non-conference game. Junior forward Smith scored 11 points and had three rebounds to help the Tigers improve to 11-3. Defending Ivy League champion Princeton tips off its conference campaign with a game at Penn (9-2) on January 9. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Last season as a top reserve for the Princeton University women’s basketball team, Vanessa Smith averaged 7.5 points and 3.5 rebounds a game.
The 6’1 junior forward has been promoted to the starting lineup this winter but her production hasn’t gone up despite the extra playing time as she is contributing 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds a contest.
In reflecting on her new role, Smith acknowledged that the transition has been rocky at times.
“It has been a little bit of an adjustment in terms of my energy level,” said Smith, a native of Twinsburg, Ohio.
“It is definitely a little more responsibility but 1 through 17 we are all dedicated to what we need to do to help the team and so whether it is on the court from the tipoff or subbing in, we are all able to give our best.”
In recent action, Smith has picked things up offensively, averaging 12.0 points a game in Princeton’s last three contests.
“I am trying to get into the swing of things with Ivy League play coming up,” said Smith, who scored 11 points and had three rebounds as Princeton pulled away to a 79-55 win over visiting Hampton last Sunday in its final non-conference game.
“It is anything I can do to help my team, whether it is rebounding or looking to get myself or one of my teammates open.”
Against Hampton, Smith had it going early, scoring six points to help the Tigers jump out to a 20-8 lead over the Lady Pirates.
“We started out with great momentum,” said Smith. “We have been really focused going into Ivy play on starting with good momentum as a team offensively, being aggressive and throwing the first punch. We have heart, we just have to prove it from the tipoff.”
Even though Hampton pulled to within 40-30 at halftime and cut the margin to eight at one point in the third quarter, Smith and her teammates weren’t fazed.
“We have a really experienced group, we are used to pressure,” asserted Smith.
“We try to handle everything with poise regardless of the score. We knew in the second half we would have to come out to reprove ourselves and play a little more tightly on offense and just calm down a little bit and play our game.”
With the Tigers having now won two straight after falling at Ohio State and Dayton in mid-December, Smith believes the team is finding its game as it heads into Ivy League play with a critical test at Penn (9-2) on January 9.
“Overall so far we have had a really tough season; we have been playing against some good opponents.” said Smith, who contributed 15 points and eight rebounds to help Princeton defeat Marist 77-44 on December 29.
“Win or lose, we have learned a lot of things from the games so going into the Ivy League we feel prepared. We feel like we have good momentum and we are just ready to play in the conference. It is one of the most exciting parts of our season definitely.”
Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart was excited by how the team pulled away from Hampton.
“This non-conference schedule has been a real challenge,” said Banghart, who got 17 points and 10 rebounds from senior Michelle Miller in the win with senior Alex Wheatley chipping in 14 points and seven rebounds and senior Taylor Williams contributing 11 points and six rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench.
“These guys are a winning program, every program on our schedule is a winning program, so we knew we were going to get a great fight. Hampton is different from any team we play, they are very aggressive in passing lanes. It is hard to prepare for that when that is not what we see. I thought it was a really good win.”
In Banghart’s view, the losses at Ohio State and Dayton should help steel her team for the challenges ahead in Ivy play.
“We found that we have such great toughness but we don’t necessarily have a great edge yet and what I mean by that is that we always punch back but I am not sure they are ready to make the first punch,” said Banghart.
“I felt like over the course of the last two games that is what they have done, they have thrown the first punch. That will be a key to our success.”
Princeton is looking to get more punch out of Smith. “We just expect her to be ready to be in full form and what she is experiencing is her first year as a starter,” said Banghart.
“It is nice to have seen her make so much progress over the last two weeks and two months even but mostly the last two weeks. I want her to be better, she wants to be better and we will get her there.”
The Tigers are determined to keep making progress collectively as they start their Ivy title defense.
“My experienced guys know what is expected of them; they know they need to be sharper at times,” said Banghart, who has guided the Tigers to five Ivy crowns in the last six years.
“They are so rugged and they are learning to play with more edge. The bench is just coming along and hopefully the experience we gained in a very tough non-conference schedule will be great for the league. We still have some time to get better and we will get better.”
Banghart acknowledges that playing at Penn to open the league campaign is a tough assignment.
“Penn is a really good team and we know that,” said Banghart of the Quakers who were second in the Ivy standings last winter to the Tigers after winning the title in 2013-14.
“We are on the road which we know to be a challenge. We found out who and what we are about in the non-conference games and we are going to build on that going into the conference. We expect to get everybody’s best. The target is gigantic on our back and we wear that with pride.”
Smith, for her part, is confident that Princeton will play with pride this Saturday in Philadelphia.
“Penn is always a great team, we have a great rivalry going on with them,” said Smith.
“We are going to come out there and play our game and they are going to play their game. Hopefully we will come out with a win. We are just going to focus on doing the things that we need to do, regardless of the venue and whose jersey is against us. We try to play together to the best of our potential and just have fun with each other.”