After Stifling Penn in Ivy Championship Game, PU Women’s Hoops Facing Kentucky in NCAAs
ENCORE PERFORMANCE: Members of the Princeton University women’s basketball team celebrate during their 68-47 win over Cornell last Saturday in the semifinals of the Ivy League postseason tournament. A day later, the Tigers topped Penn 65-54 in the championship game to win their second straight Ivy tourney. The Tigers, now 22-9, will now compete in the NCAA tournament where they were selected as a No. 11 seed in the Greensboro Region, facing 6th-seeded Kentucky on March 23 in Raleigh, N.C. in a first-round contest. (Photo by Noel Valero)
By Bill Alden
Gabrielle Rush couldn’t find a shooting rhythm in her final regular season weekend for the Princeton University women’s basketball team.
The sharpshooting senior guard went a combined 4-of-25 from the floor, including 1-of-15 from the three-point line, as Princeton topped Brown 88-68 and Yale 80-68 on March 8-9 to clinch a share of the Ivy League title and the top seed for the league’s postseason tournament.
Last weekend, though, Rush was on target as Princeton rolled to the title at the Ivy tournament at Yale. Rush went 4-of-5 for the floor and scored 12 points as the Tigers topped Cornell 68-47 in the semis on Saturday and then made 6-of-11 shots and totaled 18 points as Princeton defeated Penn 65-54 a day later in the final, earning its second straight Ivy tourney title.
“I was disappointed; I didn’t really play that well or shoot that well last weekend, so I was excited for this weekend because I knew these were the games that really mattered and where the team was going to need me the most,” said Rush, a 5’10 native of Hinsdale, Ill. “Thankfully shots just dropped for me and my teammates were finding me.”
By coming through when it mattered, the Tigers, now 22-9, earned the league’s automatic berth to the upcoming NCAA tournament, where it is seeded 11th in the Greensboro Regional and will face 6th-seeded Kentucky (24-7) in a first round contest on Match 23 in Raleigh, N.C.
While shots were dropping for Rush and the Tigers in the win over Penn, it was their defense that made the difference down the stretch as Princeton outscored the Quakers 21-7 in the fourth quarter.
“I think we held them to one basket the last time in the fourth quarter when we played them (a 68-53 win on February 26) so we knew that we could do that and everyone just really locked down,” said Rush, who was one of four Tigers named to the Ivy All-Tournament team along with sophomore Carlie Littlefield, freshman Julia Cunningham, and junior star Alarie, chosen as the tourney’s Most Outstanding Performer for the second straight year.
“We wanted it so badly; it was now our third time playing them so it feels like we know them pretty well. We were ready to get after it.”
Going through an up-and-down campaign which saw Princeton start 1-7 overall and go 2-2 in its first four Ivy games helped make the Tigers ready to shine last weekend.
“I was a little bit disappointed because I would love to have another go at those teams full strength and where we are now,” said Rush.
“We also really had a tough schedule; it helped us in the long run to play those teams.”
Serving as co-captain with classmate Sydney Jordan, Rush helped keep the Tigers on the right track through the ebbs and flows.
“Sydney and me are lifelong friends and we have worked through this year,” said Rush, who came into 2018-19 with zero career starts and has ended up starting all 31 games this season, averaging 12.5 points a contest.
“It has been a tough year for sure. We complement each other super well and we have done a pretty good job of leading this team. It is exciting to see the growth that we made together and as a team.”
In the view of Rush, Princeton’s 77-57 loss to Maryland in the NCAA tourney last year was a key growing experience for the team.
“It gives us a little chip on our shoulder for the ones who were there last year because we obviously didn’t put on the best show that we wanted to and we didn’t really display ourselves the way that we wanted to,” said Rush.
“It is exciting to be back and to show the country how far we have come as a team and how we are ready to go. We are getting healthier and healthier and we are playing with each other more and more. Now, everyone knows just how high they need to throw the ball to Bella [Alarie], who likes to catch it on the outside shot, who likes the layup, just little things like that. We are getting used to each other and it is exciting because it is making us all so much better.”
In reflecting on her team’s performance at the Ivy tourney, Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart liked the way her players responded across the board.
“To beat a good team, you all have to be contributing and that was one of our key focuses,” said Banghart. “Everybody contributed. Bella was the star that we needed her to be and everybody else brought what they were supposed to bring.”
Banghart tipped her hat to Rush and Jordan for their steady contributions this winter.
“They are the only two to play every game; there is a competitiveness to them that infiltrated our team,” said Banghart.
“That has been our guide, they just compete. What they weren’t always able to do necessarily on the stat sheet, they made sure that we were competing. Their competitive legacy is what I will be grateful for.”
The Tigers needed that competitive spirit as they faced a bumpy road this winter with Alarie sidelined for the first nine games due to a broken arm.
“When we were 2-2 in the league, I knew it was an uphill battle but we found a way,” said Banghart,
“We had to win 20 of 22 and 12 in a row. You are playing from behind, then you are tied up, then you have to clinch it and then you have got come and win a tournament.”
The Tigers face another uphill battle in the clash against Kentucky with the victor slated to face the winner of the matchup between 3rd-seeded N.C. State and 14th-seeded Maine in the second round.
“I know they are a tall team full of athletes,” said Banghart, who has guided the Tigers to eight NCAA Tournaments since 2010 with Princeton topping Green Bay 80-70 in the 2015 tourney, becoming just the second Ivy team to ever post a win in the event.
“Part of postseason success is frequency. So hopefully the frequency gives us a comfort level that we belong.”
With being uncomfortable having been the norm for the Tigers this winter, Banghart believes her team is ready for the challenge presented by the Wildcats.
“The way this year has been, they have had to fight, grit, grab, and claw all year because of how we started,” said Banghart.
“We have had to play from behind all year. You go to the NCAA tournament as an 11 seed and you are still playing from behind. It is what these guys are used to. I thought we had spurts this weekend where we played great and we had spurts last weekend where we played great. In the NCAA tournament, you are going to have to play 35 minutes of really good basketball and I think we are about ready to do that.”
Rush, for her part, is thrilled to be culminating her hoops career in the NCAA tourney.
“It is the one thing you want; the thing you are going to look back on the most,” said Rush.
“I am so happy to just have this ending to be this sweet and then to not even be done yet.”