In her first trip to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, Niveen Rasheed got caught up in the hoopla of March Madness.
“The last time I played this game, I was a freshman and I will say that I was really excited and star struck,” said junior star Rasheed, recalling Princeton’s 65-47 loss to St. John’s in 2010.
Last year, Rasheed was unable to play when Princeton advanced to its second straight NCAA tourney as she was recovering from an ACL injury suffered earlier in the season.
“It was rough; one of the hardest things to do was to watch my team and watch us slowly lose the game,” said Rasheed, reflecting on the squad’s 65-49 defeat to Georgetown.
With the No. 24 Tigers, 24-4 overall and 14-0 Ivy League, heading to the 2012 NCAA tournament seeded ninth in the Kingston (R.I.) Region and facing No. 8 Kansas State (19-13 overall, 9-9 Big 12) on Saturday in Bridgeport, Conn., Rasheed believes Princeton will take a more business-like approach.
“We all have that common goal, we are not just satisfied by making the tournament,” said Rasheed. “We are hungry to take that extra step.”
In Rasheed’s view, this Tiger squad has what it takes to make that step which would leave it with a likely second round matchup on March 19 against top-seeded Connecticut, who is facing 16th seeded Prairie View in the other game at the Bridgeport site.
“I think this is the team, this is the year,” asserted Rasheed. “I think we prepared ourselves as best we could in the preseason. I am happy with the team that we are bringing into this.”
While Rasheed was happy to be named the Ivy Player of the Year earlier this week, she doesn’t view that honor as an individual achievement.
“It is just a testament to my team,” said Rasheed, a 6’0 native of Mill Valley, Calif. who is averaging a team-high 16.8 point and 8.8 rebounds a game.
“It just shows you how deep we are and how we have so many threats. An honor for me is an honor for my team.”
The team spent last week honing those threats in practice sessions after beating Penn 79-42 in the regular season finale on March 6. “A lot of it was just focusing on ourselves,” said Rasheed, who now has 1,114 points in her Princeton career.
“In the Ivy season, we don’t have the time to focus on ourselves and things we need to get better at. I think we had a great three-four days of practice; we brought in boys to bring a higher intensity and stronger people. We had football players in, they are strong.”
Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart, for her part, believes she got a strong effort from her players last week in their pre-tournament preparation.
“I like the mini camp we had this weekend,” said Banghart, during the team’s Selection Show viewing party last Monday evening at the Triumph Brewing Company on Nassau Street.
“We were really refining who we are. I like where we are but it doesn’t matter where we are today. I hope I like where we are on Saturday.”
Banghart likes the team she is bringing into the tournament. “I have been in the tournament seven times now and this is the first time where I have not really worried about the matchup,” asserted Banghart, who went to the tournament four times as a Dartmouth player and assistant coach. “If our kids show up, we are a really good team.”
The Tigers are facing a good team in the Wildcats, who are coached by Deb Patterson and have posted wins over such powerhouses as Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and the University of Texas this season and feature a talented pair of guards in Brittany Chambers and Mariah White.
“Kansas State has been up and down, they play in a great conference,” said Banghart.
“It is hard to look at their record because they play some of the best teams in the country. They are not going to overwhelm you with athleticism. They are well coached; they have had a lot of success.”
In Banghart’s view, her team should benefit from having gone through the NCAA experience the last two seasons.
“Even for teams that go there every year, there are so many distractions,” said Banghart.
“Everything is regimented; it is really regulated. I hope now that there is excitement, as there should be, but there won’t be stars in our eyes any more.”
Banghart is glad to have star Rasheed in action for the 2012 appearance in the Big Dance.
“Niveen is hungry now; she is experienced now,” said Banghart. “She has been to two tournaments; she watched one. To have a player of that caliber changes your team.”
With Princeton having earned the highest seed given to an Ivy team in the tourney, she believes her squad is poised to show its caliber to the nation.
“This team likes to make history, we were just named today as the first Ivy women’s team to ever be ranked in the Top-25 with a 24 ranking,” said Banghart.
“These guys are striving to go beyond circumstances; they dare to be great and so it is fun to be around it. I hope we can use the experience of the past two years to know how bad it feels to have all the excitement come crashing down after a 40-minute effort.”
Rasheed, for her part, is primed to help Princeton live up to that ranking.
“Never in my mind did I think we would be a Top-25 team; that just shows our hard work,” said Rasheed.
“I am proud of our team; it is awesome to get that national recognition but I have been proud of my team ever since stepping on this campus. We have a lot at stake; we really want to prove ourselves and show that we are not a fluke.”