After Seeing 4-Year Ivy Title Streak End Last Winter, Tiger Women’s Hoops Determined to Get Back on Top
For the Princeton University women’s basketball team, winning four straight Ivy League titles from the 2009-10 season through 2012-13 may have lulled the program into a false sense of security.
“You get numb to winning, it becomes — that’s what we do here,” said Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart, at the program’s annual media day.
While Princeton won plenty of games last winter as it posted its fifth straight 20-victory season, the Tigers fell to Penn in the regular season finale to finish second to the Quakers in the Ivy standings.
Banghart is relishing being in the role of the hunter this winter. “It is a different mentality in terms of chasing a title versus protecting a title,” said Banghart, who guided Princeton to a 21-9 record last winter as the program won its first postseason game by advancing to the second round of the WNIT.
“It is something the program hasn’t had in a few years. We have proven it’s not what we do here, it is what we earn here and we didn’t earn it last year.”
As Banghart looks ahead to the the 2014-15 season, which starts this weekend with games at Pittsburgh on November 14 and at Duquesne on November 16, the eight-year head coach believes that tightening up things defensively is the key to earning another league crown.
“We went to four NCAA tournaments and in every one of those years we were the best defensive team, whether we played one-on-one, two-on-two, or three-on-three,” said Banghart.
“I always say you want to go into a competition and if the ref said by the way it is two-on-two today, you would still win it. Last year no way, we were not the best defensive team. So come hell or high water, we are going to be the best defensive team in the league this year if we are going to be champions.”
Princeton welcomes back a lot of experience in its quest to regain the league crown as the roster includes 12 letter winners from last year.
“We pretty much know what we are made of because we bring so much back,” said Banghart, noting that Princeton had four sophomores and a junior in its starting lineup for the WNIT win over Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I was able to focus a lot on the films from last year this summer to figure out where the holes were. We are certainly ahead of where we were. I don’t know if we will be where we need to be but we are certainly ahead of where we were in a lot of facets.”
One of those key returners, junior shooting guard Michelle Miller, said the Princeton players have come back with a more hungry attitude in the wake of last year’s second-place finish.
“I think we are all really driven this year,” said Miller, who averaged 11.7 points a game last winter.
“We are all really hungry to get the league title back and I think that has really changed our mentality. We hadn’t lost before so it became something like winning is what we do but you realize it is not, by any means, something that is given to you. You have to go out and earn it every single game and that starts with the way you practice.”
Senior point guard, Blake Dietrick, a first-team All-Ivy selection last year when she averaged a team-high 14.3 points a contest, is ready to earn it on the defensive end.
“From top to bottom, we have totally renewed our defensive commitment and desire,” said Dietrick.
“That is just being accountable on every play. If someone misses a help rotation we are not going to say it’s OK, get it the next time. We are going to say that is unacceptable.”
Banghart likes the commitment she has seen so far from the team in the preseason.
“I like the energy of this group,” said Banghart. “I like the enthusiasm, I like the youth, I like the experience.”
The trio of freshmen Kenya Holland, Tia Weledji, and Leslie Robinson should provide Princeton with a burst of energy.
“We are making it an obligation of our upperclassmen to ensure that our freshmen help us,” said Banghart, whose top returning veterans include juniors Alex Wheatley (10.2 points per game in 2013-14), Taylor Williams (6.7 points and 4.1 rebounds), Annie Tarakchian (6.1 points and 4.7 rebounds), and Amanda Berntsen (5.7 points) along with senior Mariah Smith (3.0 points) and sophomore Vanessa Smith (5.1 points).
“We tried last year to play without freshmen and it didn’t go so well. If we want to be as good as we can be, those freshmen have to help us. The seniors and juniors have been doing a really good job of bringing them along.”
Banghart believes that the 6’0 Robinson, the daughter of former Princeton men’s hoops standout Craig Robinson and the niece of President Obama, is poised to have a really good debut season.
“Leslie Robinson is a really special talent,” said Banghart. “Leslie’s dad played here, he was a two-time player of the year, and she obviously has some pretty famous family history. She comes at the game honestly. She brings toughness and she brings coachability.”
The Tigers face some tough tests on opening weekend. “Those are two really good challenges on the road,” said Banghart. “I haven’t even worried about what Pitt and Duquesne do yet, except that I know they are programs that carry with them a tradition as do we. I want our kids to be thrown into the fire early.”
As Princeton looks to add to its recent tradition of winning Ivy titles, competing well in non-conference games will lay the foundation for success.
“Yesterday’s thought of the day at practice was that what gets evaluated is performance, not potential,” said Banghart.
“We haven’t had any performance yet so we will see. I think it is a better league than it was four years ago. It means that the top teams have to be legitimately good and we have a role in that. We are obligated to do well nationally and represent our league well.”