While celebrating Senior Night is a once-in-lifetime experience for most college basketball players, Alex Rodgers has felt those emotions twice in her career with the Princeton University women’s basketball team.
Entering Princeton with the Class of 2014, Rogers took a leave of absence from school in 2012-13 due to a back injury. She returned last winter and was on hand when her original classmates, Nicole Hung and Kristen Helmstetter, were feted on their Senior Night. Last Saturday, senior guard Rodgers was honored along with seniors Jess Shivers, Mariah Smith, and Blake Dietrick as the Class of 2015 was recognized.
For Rodgers, straddling two classes has been a joy. “I felt I was able to celebrate with Kristen and Hung together,” said Rodgers. “I feel selfish because I have had two. Because of this, I have had more teammates than everybody else and that just means I have had more love around me.”
On Saturday, before the Tigers faced Brown, Rodgers was formally honored and was glad to be sharing the moment with Shivers, Smith, and Dietrick.
“I felt pretty good about it being my time,” said Rodgers, a 5’9 native of Mouth of Wilson, Va.
“It feels like the right time and to share it with these girls, who have been working hard all season. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Dealing with injuries over her career hasn’t dimmed Rodgers’ desire to keep working hard.
“I absolutely savor coming back,” said Rodgers. “Every summer, it didn’t matter how the year before went for me. I attacked it the same as I have been doing my whole life in basketball, working out with my dad. I had the highest hopes for every season coming in. Health always kind of plagued me but my love for the game never stopped so it was pretty easy to keep going.”
Back-up guard Rodgers enjoyed her weekend in the limelight, scoring six points on 3-for-3 shooting in a 67-49 win over Yale on Friday. A day later, an action photo of her from the game ran in the New York Times and then she got her first start in a Tiger uniform.
“It is a huge weekend, I feel like it is a bit of a reward for all of the hard work I have put in,” said Rodgers, who didn’t score in the 79-67 win over Brown and now has 140 points in 67 career appearances for the Tigers .
“It hasn’t always been easy but it has always been fun. This is the most fun weekend so far.”
The Princeton players have had a lot of fun collectively this winter, as they have gone 27-0 overall and 11-0 Ivy league, rising to No. 14 nationally in the AP Poll. Well before the season started, Rodgers had an inkling that the Tigers could do some big things this winter.
“The first week on campus, it felt a little different than the other weeks because all we were thinking about was the Penn loss,” said Rodgers, referring to the team’s 80-64 defeat to Penn in last year’s regular season finale which denied it a fifth straight Ivy crown.
“So when you have something like that behind, you start the first day of practice and you realize there is no time to waste. That is kind of how we have approached the whole season. There is no time to waste in practice, there is no time to waste in the games.”
Rodgers is determined to make the most of her fleeting time in a Tiger uniform.
“My role on the team is the same as everyone else’s,” said Rodgers. “In practice every day, it is everybody’s job to go as hard as possible. On game days it is my job to remind our team of how hard we have worked all week and that we get what we deserve out of these games. I try to provide a little comedic relief all the time.”
In reflecting on her Princeton career, Rodgers said she has gotten a lot out of the experience, on and off the court.
“It has meant everything, it has been a huge blessing as far as academics and the opportunities it has brought that way for me,” said Rodgers.
“I have always wanted to compete in basketball my whole life and this place has given me the opportunity to be competitive every day whether it is in practice or on the bench and that has meant the most to me.”
Princeton head coach Banghart enjoyed seeing the team’s seniors get their opportunity to be in the spotlight.
“Senior night is always a bittersweet night, you look at those seniors and they go undefeated at home in their senior year,” said Banghart.
“They actually didn’t even want to start the game because they thought this whole year hasn’t been about us. They have been in a supportive role and they like that role. I said let everybody else celebrate you because it is four years of an incredibly successful campaign and everybody is a part of it. You always hope that they get what they wanted and I hope tonight is a night they will remember for all of the right reasons.”
A feisty Brown squad made things tough on Princeton, trailing by 35-30 at halftime and pulling to within 73-65 with 1:23 remaining in regulation.
“They had a couple of players we had a tough time getting a handle on,” said Banghart.
“(Jordin) Alexander had 25, a lot of that was off dribble penetration. They try to make it a 1-v-1 game; we got into that but we are better when it is 5-v-5. We were flat early, the defense going up a little too much. Brown is a good team and they played like it tonight. I think being ranked is giving us better preparation for whatever might come in March because the others have an opportunity to beat a top 15 team for the first time in program history every time we come out. This is not the numbers that Brown typically gets. We get people’s best, they shoot a little bit looser because they have nothing to lose and that has been good for us. We have to play tighter possessions.”
The Tigers tightened things up in the second half. “I thought offensively we were really flat in the first half,” said Banghart.
“How we defend is how we play offense. If we defend together with cohesion and energy we usually play that way on the offensive end too. Against their zone, we reminded them of where our spots are and we reminded them that we have an advantage in the interior. We were able to slow down so that the screens and cuts were working more together.”
In moving to 27-0, Princeton set a program record for most wins in a season, eclipsing the mark of 26 posted by the 2009-10 team.
“Every milestone we get matters because it is really hard to get them in this business,” said Banghart.
“To win 20 games in a season is considered a great season so to get 27 is something, especially since that team was 26-3; it was a really good team then too. So this team will always share that they have set the program win record and hopefully they keep it going.”
Banghart, for her part, set a personal record as well, passing Joan Kowalik’s program-best of 163 wins with the victory over Yale on Friday.
“I am proud that I have been able to represent Princeton with success,” said Banghart, who is now 165-66 in her eight seasons at the helm.
“I think I have brought the right people here and they have been better for the experience and that’s my job.”
With Princeton playing at Cornell on March 6 and at Columbia on March 7, Banghart will keep the Tigers’ attention on the job at hand as they can clinch the Ivy title outright with a 2-0 weekend.
“We have already broken down yesterday’s film and tomorrow I will break down today’s and see what are the takeaways,” said Banghart.
“Last weekend it was that we needed to focus on owning the tempo better and taking care of the ball. I am sure this weekend, it will be a little more taking care of the ball as well but it will probably be making adjustments throughout the game on the floor and not having to wait to the media timeouts. That is what March is about, possession to possession, not media timeout to media timeout.”
In Rodgers’s view, the team isn’t about to lose its focus. “We have had so many highs this season, every week is a record being broken or something,” said Rodgers.
“We absolutely enjoy it; we will enjoy it downstairs in the locker room but we have already talked about Monday and taking care of the things we didn’t do so well tonight. We have three games in five days so you have to be focused right away.”