November 8, 2017

After Up-and-Down Season Last Winter, PU Women’s Hoops Excited to Turn the Page

DRIVEN TO SUCCEED: Princeton University women’s basketball player Leslie Robinson drives to the hoop in a game last season. Senior star and co-captain Robinson will be looking to provide production and leadership in her final campaign for the Tigers. Princeton tips off its 2017-18 season by hosting George Washington on November 10. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Last winter marked the first season that Princeton University women’s basketball team had suffered five Ivy League losses under Courtney Banghart since 2008-09, her second campaign at the helm of the program.

For Princeton head coach Banghart, who guided the Tigers to five Ivy titles in six seasons starting with the 2009-10 season, last year’s ups-and-downs were the product of a squad that didn’t quite mesh.

“This program has always had incredible chemistry, on and off the court,” said Banghart, speaking at the program’s recently-held media day, reflecting on a 2016-17 squad that went 16-14 overall and 9-5 Ivy, making it to the WNIT where it lost to Villanova in the first round.

“It has been a team from top to bottom and side to side; it has really prided itself on being one. Last year we weren’t quite as cohesive in terms of how we played the game together on the court.”

As Banghart looks ahead to Princeton’s season opener against George Washington on November 10 at Jadwin Gym, she believes her players are on the same page.

“What a difference a year makes in terms of the new pieces that we have; we have got a lot of young talent,” said Banghart.

“I give a lot of credit to our senior class. The energy of this group has been palpable and consistent. I have a fun team to coach, they are really focused. They are working on getting better. I am looking forward to getting the team against somebody else.”

The Tigers are looking for senior forward and co-captain Leslie Robinson to build on her breakout season last winter which saw her average 10.4 points and 7.6 rebounds a game.

“Leslie has been the heart and soul of our team now for a little while,” said Banghart, whose frontcourt will also include sophomore Taylor Baur, junior Caroline Davis (1.6 points and 1.0 rebounds last season), and sophomore Jordan Stallworth (2.1 points, 1.3 rebounds).

“It is her senior year, it is her last time out. She has a ton of experience now, she has a real edge to her. She plays the game with such joy. She is responsible for setting the barometer of the team; the sense of purpose as well as the enjoyment. She is walking that line really well. Leslie is in great shape physically and is in great shape mentally.”

Sophomore star Bella Alarie is poised to have a great year in the wake of a stellar freshman campaign during which she produced 12.5 points and 8.0 rebounds a game.

“Bella is a year older and that makes a big difference; people can forget based on her stat line and her performance last year that she was only a rookie,” said Banghart. “She is a whole year better, which is great. We are expecting her to build on the momentum she had last year.”

Banghart is expecting junior Sydney Jordan to perform all over the court.

“Sydney is probably our most versatile player; she can play the one through the five for us offensively and defensively,” said Banghart of Jordan, who averaged 4.1 points and 3.8 rebounds in 2016-17.

“She has to do that and she has done that really well. She is probably our best ball defender. We expect her to allow us to play everybody else to their strengths.”

The Tigers are welcoming a strong corps of newcomers with its Class of 2021.

“We have got a great group of freshmen, that is how it works in college basketball; our current team and the team that just graduated recruits them so I give these guys a lot of credit, they got a really good, solid class to join them in their quest here for a title,” said Banghart, noting that guards Carlie Littlefield and Abby Meyers will see a lot of action right away and that McKenna Haire and Sydney Boyer should also contribute.

Littlefield will take a key role as Banghart is trusting her to run the offense.

“Carlie is the point guard; she is tough, she is accountable,” said Banghart, whose backcourt will also include junior Gabrielle Rush (6.9 points, 2.9 rebounds), senior co-captain Tia Weledji (5.8 points, 3.1 rebounds) and senior Kenya Holland (5.0 points, 1.3 rebounds) along with junior Qalea Ismail, who is returning from a knee injury that sidelined her last year.

“She is consistent, she can score, she can defend. She is a leader on the floor. She was a good get, I am glad she is on our team.”

Robinson, for her part, is looking to help Princeton get its first Ivy title since her freshman year.

“We want the Ivy League title, we also want the Ivy League tournament title as well,” said Robinson.

“That is something that has driven us since our freshman year, going 30-0. That hunger and that eagerness is there. We have shown that to all the classes that are under us. Our work ethic is showing on and off the court. That is what teaches them and what drives everyone to want to be great.”

Alarie is seeing a special drive from the 2017-18 squad. “I would say that our energy this year has been really good,” said Alarie.

“We all came in ready to learn, ready to win, and ready to work hard to get there. Everyone across the board has bought into that and is bringing energy every day. That is going to be really important for us this year and it is going to help us to be great.”

For Alarie, the experience of helping the U.S. team take silver at 2017 U19 FIBA World Cup last summer in Italy has honed her focus.

“This summer really taught me that I don’t like second place very much and I really, really want to fight to win this Ivy title this year,” said Alarie.

“I learned a lot over the summer and I gained a lot of confidence in my game. I am really excited to attack this year with a really competitive mindset.”

Banghart knows that her team needs to be in attack mode as it deals with a challenging non-conference schedule, starting with the game against GW.

“We will see winning traditions night after night and our hope is that iron sharpens iron,” said Banghart.

“More importantly competitors want to put their uniforms on and compete, they don’t just want to play. We have got a schedule that is going to force us to compete.”

If the Tigers can avoid injury, Banghart believes her squad can add to the program’s winning tradition.

“I am really optimistic, I enjoy coaching them,” said Banghart. “The schedule is tough so how do they handle a potential setback? You just look your leaders in the eye and say we are who we are, so I don’t really worry about that. If our guys stay on the floor and if they do, I think we have a chance to be really good.”

No matter how the record shakes out, Princeton figures to provide plenty of entertainment.

“We have multiple pieces who can dribble, pass, and shoot,” said Banghart.

“They can get their own and they can get one for someone else so it is a really pretty style. The more skilled you are, the more fun you are to watch. I give a lot of credit to our returners; they are much more skilled than they were a year ago and more confident. Our young guys are skilled and confident too because they have got the swag of ballers. This team is really fun to watch.”