November 11, 2015

Despite Coming Off Extraordinary 31-1 Campaign, No. 25 PU Women’s Hoops Has Unfinished Business


HOLDING COURT: Princeton University women’s basketball head coach Courtney Banghart answers a question at the program’s annual media day last Thursday. Banghart will be looking for an encore to last year’s season for the ages which saw the Tigers go 31-1 and win an opening round game in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history. Princeton starts its 2015-16 season this weekend when it hosts American on November 13 and Duquesne on November 15. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

In its landmark campaign last winter, the Princeton University women’s basketball team posted a 30-0 regular season mark, won an opening round game in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history, and captivated fans across the nation.

But as Princeton looks forward to tipping off its 2015-16 season with home games against American on November 13 and Duquesne on November 15, there is a sense of unfinished business.

“We didn’t achieve our goal last year which was to go to the sweet 16 so we would like to do that,” said Princeton senior forward and tri-captain Alex Wheatley, reflecting on last year’s 31-1 season.

As a carryover from last year’s success, the Tigers were ranked 25th in the USA Today Preseason Coaches Poll, becoming the first-ever Ivy League program to earn a preseason national ranking.

While Wheatley and her teammates are proud of that recognition, they know it’s more for entertainment purposes at this point.

“I think we have a lot of potential but it doesn’t mean anything yet,” said Wheatley. “It is certainly an exciting way to start the season.”

Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart believes that the ranking does reflect a growing respect in hoops circles for the program.

“It says a lot, it shows that there is great trust on a national level for the program and the product we bring out year after year,” said Banghart.

“Clearly it is a combination of last year’s success but I think there is some real trust in the program which we have worked hard to earn.”

As always, Banghart will be looking for her squad to earn victories this weekend.

“We will look forward to seeing where we are, it is not a sprint but I like to win every game we play so that will be the goal on Friday night and it will be the goal again on Sunday,” asserted Banghart.

A big question mark coming into the season centers on how Princeton will deal with the void left by the graduation of Blake Dietrick, last year’s Ivy League Player of the Year.

“Blake was critical because she was fearless, relentless, and she was our point guard so she dictated our possessions,” said Banghart.

“Annie Tarakchian (10.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in 2014-15), Alex Wheatley (10.9 points, 5.1 rebounds), and Michelle Miller (11.6 points) have such a strong presence on this team but the ball wasn’t in their hands all the time so it is a little bit different. It is a change of voice in how to lead in that position. We will miss Blake leading our possessions, we will miss her leading our huddles, we will miss her in the locker room but she has left a lot of herself here so hopefully we will be able to count on that.”

Banghart is counting on Miller and Wheatley to be more focused this year on piling up bigger individual numbers.

“Michelle and Alex are similar, they are gentle and they are team players so all they care about is winning,” said Banghart.

“I have really had to teach them that their statistics matter; they have to obsess on how many they score and how many they rebound every night regardless of win or lose. I think that will make our team a lot better.”

The 6’2 Wheatley is ready to stand tall for the Tigers. “I think I have to step up and really be a presence on both ends in the post,” said Wheatley.

“I think in practice, it is about bringing others along; lift as you rise is one of coach’s favorite sayings and it is especially true this year since we are a younger team. We also have so much experience so I think it is about getting confident and being comfortable at both ends and really focusing on some production.”

Another key producer is Tarakchian, whose knack for compiling double-doubles helped spark the Tigers last winter.

“Annie is so good; she is really versatile,” said Banghart. “She is a real high motor kid, she rebounds like nobody else. She loves the game of basketball, she loves her teammates. She is a coach’s dream. I love coaching her. I love watching her play. I love watching how hard she competes. This is, in all essence, her team and I look forward to supporting her as we look to keep the trophy in Jadwin.”

Tri-captain Tarakchian, for her part, is primed to lead and compete this winter.

“Every year your role is different on the team,” said the 6’0  Tarakchian. “I think we are all still trying to get used to it, being juniors and being led by the four before and now having to speak up more and add a few points every game. It is definitely a different dynamic. The fundamentals are still there, being communicative, being a leader on the floor, showing by example.”

The x-factor for Princeton could be Vanessa Smith (7.5 points, 3.5 rebounds) who is going from key reserve to the starting lineup this winter.

“Vanessa is huge, she is now a junior and it is very different from being the sixth man to being a starter,” said Banghart, whose other tri-captain, Taylor Williams (5.0 points, 2.8 rebounds) will fill a key reserve role.

“Vanessa is going into the season as a starter; the accountability and the consistency that requires, she has yet to prove. I need both of those things to be critical components of Vanessa.”

The play of senior Amanda Berntsen (6. 9 points, 55 assists) at point guard will be critical.

“Amanda has started and she will be starting at the one,” said Banghart.

“We play offenses that are structured where it doesn’t matter who our one is but Amanda will have the ball in her hands in the possessions early on.”

Banghart is hoping to get early contributions from promising freshmen Sydney Jordan, Qalea Ismael, and Jordan Muhammad.

“We have got a really, really dynamic freshman class that probably has a chance to be as dynamic as our current seniors,” said Banghart.

“There is probably as much national attention on them. They are joining a program that is really solid so it is a little bit different when you are coming into a top 25 program and physically and pace-wise you are not quite ready to play at the college level.”

The Tigers are focused on being up to speed at the defensive end. “Every year we have won it we have been the beat team in the league defensively and that means everything from challenging shots to rebounds,” said Banghart.

“Those two things remain critical to who we are. This team can score so we  spend a lot more time on the defensive end here and because we are hard to guard, our defense gets better. So we hope that we are going to have to have a consistent effort while the freshmen are going to have to learn to defend at the level of the rest of us.”

Coming into the season, Banghart is confident that this year’s team can maintain the program’s level of excellence.

“A lot of our alums will be back for opening weekend, people are getting told often that there are people who put blood, sweat and tears in this program and it is their turn to carry it,” said Banghart.

“I think legacy is important to Princeton and our kids have bought into that, for sure. We are going to get everybody’s best shot, now American gets a chance to play a top 25 team and then so does Duquesne. We have got a huge target, that is what you work so hard for so I look forward to it.”