March 22, 2017

PU Women’s Hoops Falls to Villanova in WNIT, Displaying its Resilience, Character to the End

DOUBLE VISION: Princeton University women’s basketball player Leslie Robinson dribbles to the hoop in a game this season. Last Friday, junior star Robinson recorded her seventh double-double of the season with 14 points and 12 rebounds but it wasn’t enough as Princeton fell 59-53 to visiting Villanova in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT). The defeat left the Tigers with a final record of 16-14. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

When the Princeton University women’s basketball team started its 2016-17 campaign by losing its first four games, it didn’t look like a squad headed to postseason play.

But the Tigers regrouped, ending up in second place in the Ivy League standings and advancing to the title game of the league tournament.

As a result, Princeton found itself hosting Villanova in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) last Friday evening.

“It showed this group how far they had gone,” said Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart, reflecting on the program’s eighth straight appearance in a postseason tournament. “We just wanted to loosen up and enjoy it and I think we did.”

While Banghart didn’t enjoy the outcome as the Tigers fell 59-53 to Villanova, she liked the way her team fought to the end.

“It was a possession game and their stars made more winning plays at the end than ours,” said Banghart, whose team trailed 21-14 after the first quarter and then outscored the Wildcats 39-38 over the rest of the contest as junior star Leslie Robinson led the way with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

“It was a possession game that could go either way and we have been on both ends of it.”

Noting that the season could have gone poorly due to the fact that the Tigers lost five stellar seniors and 92 percent of its scoring to graduation from last year’s squad and suffered through adversity this winter, Banghart is proud of the 16-14 record posted by Princeton.

“When you lose 4,500 points in one year and you get one of your stars returning with an ACL tear and during the season we had four knee surgeries and mono and everything else, there are so many opportunities to say we are just rebuilding,” said Banghart.

“Our kids were never willing to do that. I really enjoyed coaching the team. I felt like it was different than a lot of the years I have had in the past, in that way it was rejuvenating.”

Banghart credited her trio of seniors, Vanessa Smith, Taylor Brown, and Jackie Reyneke, with setting a winning tone.

“What they ensured is that the culture of our program is in place regardless of result,” said Banghart, reflecting on a group that finished with 90 wins, one Ivy League title, and four postseason appearances.

“They (Brown, Reyneke) had sat behind others, and in Vanessa’s case, her role was always more that defensive guy. We didn’t need much from her on offense for most of her career. The next thing you know the program is handed to them. The way that they selflessly carried out their task all four years and the way they contributed to winning when the program was in their hands, they ensured that a second place finish was what they earned. You are so grateful to them because this could have been a really challenging year and it wasn’t; it was really enjoyable.”

With a foundation of returners featuring freshman star Bella Alarie, the Ivy League Rookie of the Year, and junior standout Robinson along with starting sophomore forward Sydney Jordan and such key reserves as sophomore Gabrielle Rush, junior Kenya Holland, junior Tia Weledji, and sophomore Jordan Muhammad, Banghart believes the program is in good hands going forward.

“A lot of guys got experience this year,” said Banghart. “Leslie Robinson and Sydney Jordan showed how important the offseason is because they came back so much better. I think they had the best offseasons of the kids coming back. We have got really talented freshmen coming in a top 40 ranked class nationally so we will have an influx of talent. For the pieces that we have, it will be up to them to determine what the offseason looks like and how much better they want to get individually. It is Leslie’s team now and I have a ton of confidence in her leadership for sure.”

Heading into the offseason, Banghart will be looking to get her returning players more confident in their game.

“We always do offensive skillwork in the spring and work on team concepts and defensive stuff in the fall,” said Banghart.

“We are going to get started right away with their offensive skill work. You look them in the eye and ask them what kind of player they want to be and then you help them get to be that player skill-wise.”