Matching Up ’20 vs ’15 PU Women’s Hoops Powers Makes for Intriguing What-If After a Season Cut Short
POINT COUNTERPOINT: Star point guard Blake Dietrick, left, triggered the 2014-15 Princeton University women’s basketball team to a 31-1 record in a senior campaign that saw her get named as the Ivy League Player of the Year while junior guard Carlie Littlefield was a first-team All-Ivy performer this winter as the Tigers went 26-1. (Photos by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
The Princeton University women’s basketball team was left with a number of what-ifs following the cancellation of the NCAA tournament in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a postscript to an historic season that saw Princeton dominate the Ivy League and barge its way into the Top 25, there is a lingering hypothetical what-if.
In the same vein as water cooler debates over which storied NBA teams could have beaten the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, the subject of the ESPN documentary The Last Dance, strong opinions are sparked by the question of how would the 2019-20 Tigers team fare against the 2014-15 Princeton team in a matchup of the two best seasons in program history.
Former Princeton players and coaches — rather reluctantly — compared their teams, always with the caveat that they were each other’s biggest fans, not rivals in any way.
“I really wish this year’s team could’ve made their run in the tourney,” said Annie Tarakchian, who starred for the 2015 team before graduating in 2016 and returning to her home state of California. “We were all so looking forward to that and gearing up to go wherever the games were seeded.”
INSIDE STUFF: Two of the tougher inside players for the Princeton University women’s hoops program in recent years have been Annie Tarakchian, left, shown snaring a rebound in the 2014-15 season and Taylor Baur heading to the basket in a game this season. (Photos by Frank Wojciechowski)
Reaching New Heights
The 2015 team set a new program standard five years ago as it rose to No. 13 in the national rankings. The Tigers went 30-0 overall and 14-0 Ivy in the regular season and (after being grossly undervalued as a No. 8 seed by the selection committee) won a first-round NCAA tournament game for the first time in program history, defeating Green Bay 80-70 before falling 85-70 to top-seeded Maryland to finish 31-1. Princeton standouts Blake Dietrick, Alex Wheatley, and Tarakchian were all first-team All-Ivy League selections, with Dietrick getting named as the Ivy Player of the Year and later going on to play in the WNBA.
“I watched them play all the time as a high schooler,” said Princeton senior star Bella Alarie. “They’re a great team. They were so fun to watch. They played amazing in the NCAA tournament. I’m from Maryland so I got to see them play at UMD. I know what they’re capable of. They’re a super talented group. I do think our defense would be a really interesting matchup against their offense. They had people firing from all cylinders. That was one thing that I was impressed by watching them — they had a ton of weapons at different levels with Blake and Wheatley and Annie and all of them.”
In addition to their first-team All-Ivy trio, the 2015 team also started guards Michelle Miller, a first-team All-Ivy selection the next year, and Amanda Berntsen. They brought Vanessa Smith, who would start the following two years, off the bench along with Taylor Williams and Mariah Smith. Leslie Robinson, a freshman at the time and a future first-team All-Ivy selection in 2018, barely saw the court, because the team was so deep. Their strength of schedule was ranked 83rd and they had the country’s 10th best RPI ranking. The 2015 went 4-1 vs. 1-50 ranked RPI teams with their best win over RPI No. 23 Green Bay in first round of the NCAA tournament. They also knocked off RPI Nos. 39 Pitt, No. 44 Duquesne, No. 49 American, and No. 54 Michigan.
“I thought they were fierce, especially how Blake leads their team, they were not going to lose,” said Princeton senior Taylor Baur. “No matter who they were playing against, they did not want to lose. It didn’t matter if it was a Power 5 school or a smaller conference, they were out there to compete and show everyone what Princeton basketball was about.”
For The Defense
The 2020 team, for its part, won its final 22 games to finish 26-1 overall and 14-0 Ivy. Its one loss came in a 77-75 overtime defeat at Iowa. For the rest of the year, the Tigers never surrendered more than 55 points in a game as they climbed to No. 17/22 in the national polls.
“I think my favorite part of this team’s game is their defense,” said Wheatley, who graduated in 2016 and was back to complete graduate studies at Princeton this year. “They just shut teams down — every board and stop and loose ball.”
This season’s Tigers were paced by Alarie, the three-time Ivy Player of the Year and first women player in league history to ever be named All-America twice. She was selected fifth in the WNBA draft on April 17, matching the highest pick ever for an Ivy player. She’s good enough to be a first-name celebrity in the Ivies — hearing “Bella” is enough.
“She’s as good as this league is going to see,” said Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin, who has had the unenviable task of facing both squads during his tenure with the Quakers. “I’m disappointed that the league got canceled, but I wasn’t excited to see her again.”
Alarie was part of a potent 1-2 punch with Carlie Littlefield, the junior point guard who has started all three of her years. Both have shown steady development to become elite level players.
“I was really impressed,” said Wheatley. “Bella manages to have ‘quiet’ double-doubles, just monster stat lines against every team’s best. I’ve always been a big fan of Carlie’s game too. The team is fun to watch!”
Rounding out the other 2020 starters, Baur was at forward with Julia Cunningham and Grace Stone playing at the guard spots. Abby Meyers, one of the highest ranked recruits in Princeton history, came off the bench after returning from a knee injury along with sophomore guard Maggie Connolly and freshman forward Ellie Mitchell. Their 83rd strength of schedule equaled exactly that of 2015 and their ninth-ranked RPI was one spot higher even though they didn’t face as much top-55 competition as did 2015. The 2020 team’s best win was over a No. 35 ranked Florida Gulf Coast team that went 27-3. They also beat No. 54 Marist. They were robbed of the chance to show any more on a higher level when the NCAA tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“I was looking forward to seeing them in the tourney and was very disappointed for them when that opportunity was no longer possible,” said Miller, who after graduating in 2016 is in her third year of medical school at UCLA.
By The Numbers
The hypothetical historic matchup on paper breaks down into a great offensive team versus a great defensive team. The 2015 team scored 104 points in one game. They tallied 96 against Harvard, the third-best team in the Ivies that year. They averaged more than 75 points per game, shot a gaudy 40.5 percent from 3-point range as a team, and hovered close to 50 percent in overall field goal percentage (49.1). They beat teams by an average of 23.2 points per game, and the outcomes were often without doubt by halftime.
“Looking at the numbers I think clearly we have the edge offensively, like if you look at the field goal and 3-point shooting percentages,” said Miller. “Opponent field goal and 3-point percentages are actually similar. They do significantly better with turnovers and way better with turnover margin though.”
The 2020 team led the country in defensive points allowed per game at 47.6. Their ability to turn over teams and convert enabled them to average more than 71 points per game and thus actually create a slightly higher scoring margin than 2015 at 23.6 points per game.
“Our defense is a lot different even from our years past,” said Baur. “We just worked on it a lot, the communication and intensity with which we approached the defensive end. People say defense wins championships. As a collective, everyone individually bought into the defensive end along with the five out to the court. It really translated.”
The 2020 team didn’t shoot the 3-pointer at as high a percentage as 2015 did (33.3 compared 40.5 percent), but did average just slightly more made 3s per game than 2015, 6.6 to 6.3. And the 2020 team’s plus-5 advantage in turnover margin could result in more scoring chances, one reason for their confidence.
“I think we’d have a great scout on them and be super locked in,” Alarie said. “I think we could potentially shut them down. I think it’d be a really good matchup. Our team is very talented offensively as well. Guarding Carlie — I know Blake’s a great defender, Carlie’s awesome too and she’d try to lock her down.”
The 2015 team showed its offensive diversity over the season with Dietrick being the leading scorer 13 times, Miller 10 times, Wheatley eight times, Tarakchian three times, and two others twice. The 2020 team had only three games where someone other than Alarie or Littlefield led them in scoring, which could speak to the duo’s talent or to a difference in the teams’ abilities.
“Numbers-wise we scored more points, but they held opponents to fewer points,” said Dietrick.
“Obviously I’m biased, but if the teams went head-to-head I think the 2015 team pulls it out by a point or two. I just think we were slightly more balanced with our scoring attack, so we are harder to defend than just focusing on stopping one or two players. We also shot the three at a really high percentage which is hard to guard.”
MATCHING WITS: Courtney Banghart, left, surveys the action in game during the 2014-15 season when she was named National Coach of the Year as she led the Tigers to a 30-0 regular season while Carla Berube makes a point this winter in a debut campaign that saw the Tigers go 26-1. (Photos by Frank Wojciechowski)
Courtney Banghart, the former Princeton head coach who recruited all of the players on both teams before leaving to take over as the North Carolina head coach after the 2018-2019 season, sees similarities in both of the teams in terms of star power and roster depth. The differences are in how they played with 2015 using an up-tempo game and a variety of play-makers and scorers that could overwhelm teams while 2020 frustrated teams with their defensive discipline, their length, and athleticism.
“That (2015) team could score at an elite level, which you need when you play top teams,” said Banghart in a message.
“But the 2020 is better built defensively — better athletes on that end. Annie and Michelle weren’t as athletic, but they can score more than Grace and Julia.”
The 2015 team was a more mature and battle-tested group overall than 2020. This year’s squad team started one senior superstar in Alarie, a veteran Littlefield, a senior in her first year starting, and then two sophomores. The 2015 team started a senior star in Dietrick and four experienced juniors in at least their second years of starting.
“They knew how to play,” said McLaughlin. “They knew how to win. Blake Dietrick was tough down the stretch. They were just so solid. As the year went on, I remember we played them right at the end, and they just played so well together. Courtney did a good job. They were defensively solid and they kept the game simple and they were really, really good at that they did.”
Getting deeper into the head-to-head individual matchups would present some fantastic battles highlighted by Alarie versus Wheatley at the forward spot and Littlefield versus Dietrick at point guard.
“Blake and Carlie — two of the best to ever do it in the orange and black,” said Banghart. “Relentless, tough, reliable, competitors.”
The dynamic point guards share more similarities than differences in how they orchestrated the attacks of their team. Dietrick, who also played lacrosse at Princeton, was the one senior in the 2015 starting lineup. She is heading into her fifth season in the WNBA. Littlefield has continued to improve each season on both ends.
“Blake was a little bit of a better athlete overall,” said McLaughlin. “She’s gone on to still have a very good career. Defensively, Carlie Littlefield is more tenacious and she just puts her head down and plays. She really grinds the game out defensively and she finds a way to score as well. She can shoot the three, she can go by you. Blake Dietrick was a little bit bigger and as she got older, she got really, really good. By the end of her career, she was one of the top players in our league.”
While Dietrick headlined the 2015 team out of the point guard spot, Alarie did so as a versatile forward with guard skills for the 2020 team. Alarie’s teammates drew confidence from her, and McLaughlin thinks she could tip the scales.
“I thought just because Bella was so good this year’s team to me was the better team,” added McLaughlin.
“Just because she was such a difference-maker on both ends of the floor. She was tough to guard on the offensive side because she could do so many things, and defensively she disrupted the game with her size and length and her ability to guard a little on the perimeter and guard the rim. I thought she was the difference-maker. I would give the small hand to this group from 2020.”
He further explained that the defensive ability of the 2020 team under the tutelage of defensive-minded new head coach Carla Berube would present a significant challenge.
“This year, Carlie at the point of attack defensively, and with Bella in the back, it’s just really tough to compete against,” McLaughlin said.
“Carlie can guard your point guard, she can guard your best shooting guard, she can guard a wing, and just the way she played — they switched out on the perimeter — they were just so, so solid defensively. I think the reason their scores were lower is because it just took a while to get a good shot against them. They just were really difficult to score against, and they reduced the number of possessions because it takes a while to be able to get a good shot against them. I don’t know if you can simply compare that just because they scored more in 2015, they were better. I think their style of play this year was just so difficult to play against.”
Maybe McLaughlin is a prisoner of the moment, but nobody is doubting Alarie’s skill set and the potential problems the best player on the floor would present. The 2015 team just believes in Wheatley’s ability to limit her.
“I’m obviously biased, Wheats is my best friend,” said Miller. “I would say that they (Penn) don’t have anyone with the combination of athleticism and physicality that Wheats had as a defender.”
Miller pointed to Wheatley’s ability to defend the likes of Temi Fagbenle, a first-team All-Ivy selection for Harvard, who was pushed to second team in 2015. Fagbenle is 6’4 and was selected in the third round of the WNBA, but she’s decidedly less versatile than Alarie, who in addition to being an imposing post player is also a capable 3-point shooter.
“I think Wheats would be able to limit Bella enough for us to win overall,” said Miller. “Bella has a unique versatility to her game and obviously better outside and midrange shooting, but in the post I’d take Wheats based on physicality. And yes, definitely running the floor, Wheats was elite. Bella is a great player and I don’t think anyone can stop her per se, it’s just about limiting her. I think Wheats is a good enough defender to limit her without having to send a double team, which is also key. Many Ivy teams have to double her.”
Wheatley would not rely solely on posting up to score and try to draw fouls on Alarie, with Dietrick raving about the way that Wheatley ran the floor better than opposing post players to create advantages in other ways.
“I loved transitions, Blake’s right about that,” Wheatley said. “Someone would have to deal with my transition game.”
The rest of the hypothetical matchups are no less intriguing. Tarakchian, whom Banghart said was “as versatile and reliable on O as Grace Stone is on D,” would be a tricky matchup for Baur. Baur is plenty athletic with the ability to run the floor like Wheatley, according to Banghart, and Baur would try to use her height edge against Tarakchian at both ends of the floor.
Fellow New Jersey natives Berntsen and Cunningham would square up as wing players who make open shots. Stone, a superb defender, would match up with Miller, who Banghart called the “best midrange shooter I’ve ever coached.”
Miller, for her part, concedes that the defensive prowess of the 2020 squad could be an X-factor.
“I think if you go matchup by matchup, we win most of the individual matchups,” said Miller. “But I think the question I would have that I can’t really determine just from looking at stats is, what exactly made their defense so highly rated this year and how would that translate to our hypothetical matchup?”
The benches too — with 2015 led by the explosive Vanessa Smith and 2020 keyed by a stellar 3-point threat Abby Meyers — could swing the game either way by giving their team a spark. Both teams had firepower coming in that was unmatched in Ivy play.
“Both second groups win the league by a landslide,” said Banghart. “Maybe it’s a toss-up. But to win in March, you don’t need depth.”
And The Winner Is…
With the team numbers being so close in some aspects and seemingly perfectly countering each other in other facets, who wins this dream matchup?
“I don’t think anyone from either team all the way down the bench would say the other would win,” said Tarakchian. “There’s pride and belief in your team that runs deep.”
There is pride reflected in the answers of players from both teams when probed to pick a winner. Their competitive side that made them such winners comes out.
“I know this is a bit subjective, but there is something to be said about a team that can go undefeated for a whole season,” said Dietrick of her 2015 team.
“There’s just something special going on there. No doubt the current team is special too, but every game we found a way to win. Someone different would step up. I think that’s what made us really special.”
The 2020 team feels similarly about its own make-up. The few chances to get a glimpse of how the teams would fare are skewed by their different years. Alarie and Baur were only in high school when they faced some 2015 team members as recruits.
“I remember being so much smaller and not as strong and clearly a high schooler playing against them,” said Baur.
Alarie’s game, too, grew immensely upon her arrival to Princeton. Dietrick returned last year to play with Alarie and Littlefield when Alarie was preparing for international 3-on-3 competition.
“I’ve done a few workouts with Bella and Carlie,” said Dietrick. “But those were recent, and I’d like to think I’ve improved a bit since college so it’s kind of hard to judge.”
Lining up against each other might be possible in the future, not just for Alarie and Dietrick in the WNBA. Princeton Reunions bring together Princeton friends and classmates and host the PU women’s annual alumni game. With the cancellation of Reunions this year, the potential opportunity to pair players from the two most historically outstanding teams is another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’d be a really, really good game,” said Alarie. “I have to say we would win because we’d play as hard as we could. I can’t talk bad about my own team. I think it’d be an awesome, awesome matchup.”
The 2015 and 2020 Princeton teams are two of the best in program history. That much is definite, but determining which was best could be a subject of light-hearted debate for years to come.
“All I know for certain is that it would be a fun game to both play and watch,” said Tarakchian.
“Princeton basketball is special in its own right so all 10 players on the floor having that Tiger energy would make for a real good battle. Good thing we’re all actually on the same team.”