February 6, 2019

PU Women’s Hoops Posts 2-0 Ivy Weekend As Senior Rush Motivated for Stretch Drive

BOUNCING BACK: Princeton University women’s basketball player Gabrielle Rush dribbles the ball in a game earlier this season. Last weekend, senior guard Rush helped Princeton go 2-0 in its first Ivy League weekend of the season as the Tigers topped Columbia 79-64 last Friday and then defeated Cornell 75-46 a day later, getting on the winning track after having fallen 66-60 to Penn its its league opener on January 5. The Tigers, now 10-8 overall and 2-1 Ivy, host Yale on February 8 and Brown in February 9. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Gabrielle Rush is feeling a lot better this week.

It’s not just that the Princeton University senior guard’s fall exams are behind her, it’s that the Tigers women’s basketball team is back to winning.

“We’ve been super motivated and focused on ourselves to get where we need to be over the whole month of January,” said Rush.

“It was finally exciting to get to suit up against another team and show we have gotten better over this month and we’re coming for everyone else. That was exciting to have that show in this weekend and get those wins to move up a little in the rankings.”

Princeton had not played the remainder of January since a 66-60 loss to Penn on January 5 to open the Ivy League schedule. It was a loss that did not sit well with Rush, and she and the Tigers had plenty of time to think about it over their exam break.

“It was rough,” said Rush. “Especially those first couple days, it felt like it’s going to be weighing on me this whole month. I hate losing and hate losing to Penn. I tried to use it as a way to motivate me. Coach sat down with upperclassmen on the team and we talked about what we wanted it to be like this month and what we wanted to get out of it. Basically we wanted to get tougher and to get better.”

Over the rest of January, the Tiger players and coaches worked in concert to achieve those goals.

“The coaches did a great job of pinpointing what our weaknesses were and working on them over this whole month,” said Rush.

“I’m trying to look at it as the glass is half-full. Maybe it wasn’t the worst thing in the world that we lost. We were coasting on an eight-game win streak going into that. Having a loss, we’re 0-1 in the Ivy League, it motivated us over this entire month. We have a chip on our shoulder and we have something to prove to everyone.”

Rush has the sort of attitude that the Tigers needed over the break, displaying a winning mentality day in, day out.

“Gabrielle brings a competitive relentlessness,” said Tigers head coach Courtney Banghart. “She’s incredibly competitive. I always say you have to lead competitively if you’re going to be a leader in competitive sports. She does that. She’s competitive in practice and games.”

Rush provided her usual steadiness in a 79-64 win at Columbia on Friday followed by a 74-46 win at Cornell on Saturday for an Ivy weekend sweep as the Tigers improved to 10-8 overall and 2-1 Ivy. Rush scored seven points and nailed one 3-pointer against Columbia and the hit three from long distance against Cornell as she totaled nine points. She’s made at least one 3-pointer in all but one game this season.

“I think it’s huge to have that confidence,” said Rush, who has 51 3-pointers on the season. “It’s always a little uneasy coming off this break. You feel like you’ve gotten better, but we also were taking finals and writing papers so you don’t know what to expect. It’s affirming in everyone’s minds, players and coaches included, but we still do have that one loss on our record. We know we still have something to prove and we’re just getting started.”

One key source of confidence for the Tigers is a renewed aggressiveness out of Bella Alarie. The junior forward established two Ivy League records and a Princeton program record at Columbia. She broke the Ivy single-game record for points with 45 and field goals with 20 (on 28 shots). Earlier in the game, she broke Princeton’s all-time career blocks record. With four blocks, she now has 160 in her Princeton career, and she missed the first month of this season with a broken wrist.

“The key is she’s a really elite two-way player,” noted Banghart. “I challenge people to find other elite two-way players, people that make a significant impact on both ends. To score 20 field goals, it wasn’t like there were 15 points from the foul line. Yet, she’s an elite defender. Any game, she’s going to have four or five blocks. She’s a really elite two-way player. I know that means a lot to her to play both ends.”

It might mean even more to her team although Princeton has weapons like Carlie Littlefield, who had 18 points and nine rebounds against Columbia. The Tigers could see first-hand in the sweep how much Alarie’s dominance helped.

“Other teams like Penn have more size, and Bella wasn’t assertive,” said Banghart. “One of her main adjustments over the last 26 days was to understand her being assertive is not really in her. She’s a gentle giant but her being assertive makes her and us better. She’s had to shift her mentality. It was the first game with that mentality and it was obviously hugely helpful. Cornell, they shaded to her the entire time but she still had 20 points so she’s being more assertive.”

Alarie is the sort of player to apologize to teammates for taking a shot rather than passing it, but her teammates are trying to help Alarie see that they need her to play more like she did last weekend.

“We’re so much happier when she’s playing aggressive,” Rush said. “As coach points out too, it opens up everything for everyone else when she’s playing like that. If they send two or three people, that’s when everyone else is open. She’s the most selfless person too. She worries about that and now it’s clicking that, ‘I’m the way we can bust this thing open.’”

Rush started to see a more aggressive Alarie in practices coming out of exams. And the practice form showed up in the game with a scoring explosion matched by only one other Princeton player – the legendary Bill Bradley ’65.

“During the game I didn’t even realize it,” said Rush. “That’s what a lot of our practices have been like over January. Her finishes are just incredible. She’s finishing through two or three people and being strong with it, getting her own rebounds and going back up with it. I was so excited for her because I think she’s gotten so much better just this month alone. It was incredible to see that play out on Friday and the way she handled it.”

Rush has been helping Princeton stretch the floor with her outside shooting since arriving from Hinsdale Central in Illinois, where she was her program’s all-time leading scorer, rebounder, and 3-point shooter. She had to adjust to more than not being one of the tallest players on the team.

“It was a pretty rude awakening when I got here,” said the 5’10 Rush. “College basketball is a lot different than high school basketball. It has taken a while for me to make that adjustment. Looking back, it’s cool to see what the coaches have done for me, trying to tweak my game here and there. I do feel so much more comfortable on the floor driving and passing as well as shooting, and defending. It’s been awesome.’

Facing talented teammates in practice on a daily basis also helped Rush diversify her game.

“I credit the people that played in front of me too. It’s tough coming in as a freshman, and Michelle Miller has the dirtiest crossover and you’re getting exposed on defense every time,” said Rush.

“Practicing like that, it toughened me up. I knew what I needed to do to get better and it was just attacking it and having an attitude where I want to get better and I want to contribute to this team and the coaches were telling me how I could do that.”

Rush set a career-high with 25 points against Rider this season. Four times in her career she’s made five 3-pointers in a game, but she’s a lot more than that now after four years at Princeton.

“She’s a much better basketball player,” said Banghart. “She came in as a shooter. That’s what she did for a very good club team; her job was to shoot for Midwest Elite. At Princeton, you don’t get to have one thing to do. The way we play, we need you to do lots of different things. She’s really developed as a basketball player and then the leadership piece is bringing others along.”   

Rush isn’t done developing as a player. She was working on her weaknesses over the exam break to be better prepared for the final games of her Princeton career.

“I was definitely focusing on my defensive end,” said Rush. “Just minor things like checking and boxing out and being up the line (of the passing angle) to try to get more deflections. Being more aggressive on the defensive end. That’s something I focused on as well as just becoming a better passer. Obviously, playing with Bella, she gets guarded pretty tough. It’s as much on the passers as her to get her the ball.”

Princeton also gained valuable experience for its freshmen during last weekend’s sweep on their first Ivy road trip. Lexi Weger had a career-high 13 points off the bench against Cornell.

“You just look forward to having a chance to go into the team bonding that occurs in back-to-back play,” said Banghart. “It was the first time that they had two games so close together that meant so much. They needed them. To watch our team on bus trips, and do what they do, we needed this time together.”

Princeton will be at home this weekend to host Yale on Friday and Brown a night later. Yale sits tied with Harvard for second in the Ivies at 3-1. Brown is 1-3 but leads the league in scoring offense. Penn is 3-0. Princeton moved to fourth in the standings with its 2-1 mark. The top four teams at the end of the regular season qualify for the Ivy League postseason tournament.  

“It’s a big weekend,” said Rush. “It’s exciting. After last weekend, it’s clear it’s anyone’s league this year. There’s not the same dominance. Penn is still undefeated. But it’s more even top to bottom. People are better this year. It’s exciting because there’s pressure on every game. We can’t take any game for granted. We need to tighten up a little bit. We’ve added some new things on offense and defense.”