March 27, 2019

PU Women’s Hoops Fights Hard in NCAA Loss, Displaying Heart and Soul of Proud Program

CATFIGHT: Princeton University women’s basketball player Sydney Jordan heads to the hoop in a game this season. Last Saturday, senior guard/forward Jordan scored a career-best 17 points but it wasn’t enough as 11th-seeded Princeton fell 82-77 to sixth-seeded Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Raleigh, N.C. The defeat to the Wildcats left the Tigers with a final record of 22-10. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Courtney Banghart wasn’t surprised that her Princeton University women’s basketball team fought to the finish in the NCAA tournament opener.

The Tigers have been fighters from the very beginning of a season that started with myriad challenges, and they were battling to the end of an 82-77 loss to Kentucky in the first-round of the NCAA tournament in Raleigh, N.C. last Saturday.

“This year that we’ve had, that game kind of categorizes our season with the resilience that we showed,” said Banghart. “The competitive leadership of our seniors was on full display. The talent of Bella (Alarie) was on full display. And the grittiness of Carlie (Littlefield) was on full display.”

The 11th-seeded Tigers led Kentucky, ranked 17th nationally but seeded sixth, by as many as nine points in the second quarter. The Wildcats rallied late in the third quarter to take a lead they would not relinquish despite several good chances for Princeton right down to the final seconds of the fourth quarter.

“Our seniors gave it all they have,” said Banghart. “I didn’t want anyone to have any regrets. I think if you played Kentucky 10 times, you win five of them, and that says a lot about this team.”

Princeton’s two senior captains came up huge in their final game as Gabrielle Rush had a game-high 22 points while Sydney Jordan had a career-high 17 points. Junior star Alarie, the two-time Ivy League Player of the Year, had 20 points, 15 rebounds and five assists to record her 34th career double-double. Sophomore point guard Littlefield had 10 points, 3 assists, and 2 steals as the Tigers finished the season 22-10 overall.

“The fact that we never gave up, when you think about our season, we started 1-7 and even in the league we started 0-1 for the whole month of January, and then we were 2-2 and both of our losses were at home,” said Banghart. “So we knew had to basically win all the rest of them, mostly being away. And then having to win the Ivy League tournament. So we felt like our backs were against the wall all year and we had to show resilience. That’s kind of how the game went. We were playing the 17th ranked team in the country who shot well above their average from 3 and we still had a possession to win it.”

The Tigers had some unexpected transactions even before the season began. They turned over their coaching staff under Banghart, and lost last year’s standout freshman Abby Meyers for a year due to an academic issue. Then Alarie went down with a broken wrist that cost her the first nine games, but she was only the most visible of the losses. Princeton’s third senior, Qalea Ismail, only played nine games to end her injury-plagued career and headline a litany of injuries on the team.

“We had 15 MRIs this year,” said Banghart. “We only had two players that dressed for every practice this year, our two captains. It was just that kind of year. We very rarely had 10 in uniform for practice. So this year it’s resilience, it’s gritty, it’s also the power of seniors. The seniors were unwilling to give in. Back when we were 1-7, they were panicking. Not because of themselves, but they were panicking because the program was in their hands, and it wasn’t at the standard. They just showed you can will your group a long way as seniors and they did that.”

It was the case again when matched against Kentucky, a team that relies on defensive pressure and depth to wear opponents down. The Tigers came out strongest – one year after a slow start doomed them to a 77-57 loss to Maryland in the NCAA tournament.

“We played Maryland last year, and we were a lot younger but we felt like we never really sunk our teeth into the game,” said Banghart.

“I thought that (Kentucky) game could have gone either way, and the growth therefore that our kids had from a year ago was incredible. They paid a lot of attention to Bella and she found her teammates in a really elite way. The girls stuck to our game plan. And our staff came up with a great game plan, we executed it, and we almost won. Possession games can go either way. The fact that this didn’t go ours is something we’re disappointed with, but we don’t have regret. That’s the key in life’s big moments – that you don’t have regrets.”

Rush hit a 3-pointer with 8:22 left in the second quarter for a 27-18 Princeton lead. Rush finished with 6 3-pointers to become the program’s single-season 3-pointers made record holder with 96.

A basket by freshman Grace Stone in the waning moments of the second quarter gave Princeton a 37-33 lead at halftime. Princeton was still in great shape until the final two minutes of the third quarter. After an Alarie layup tied the game, 52-52, Kentucky scored the final nine points of the quarter.

Rush opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer and Jordan hit two free throws and a jumper later by her gave her the new career-high of 17 points to go with five rebounds.

“Sydney Jordan, I’m not sure she’d score 20 points in an empty gym, but she started for us for three years because she’s accountable, she’s tough and she defends,” said Banghart of Jordan, who was a co-recipient of the 2019 Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, the highest general distinction available to an undergraduate.

“She’s the quintessential Tiger in terms of all those things. She’s accountable and she shows you don’t have to be glamorous to contribute on a good team.”

On the sideline, Ismail led the bench in spirit, remaining positive in the face of every challenge.

“Qalea was a big-time recruit, and she spent more time in the training room than she did in basketball gyms,” said Banghart. “In her case, she showed what it was to be a good teammate. She was always pleasant and cheering along her teammates and was never woe is me.”

The trio of seniors set the tone to the season and they pushed the team on even when Princeton fell behind by 11 points with 5:30 left in the game. Rush hit a 3 to trim into the lead, and Jordan’s jumper inched the Tigers closer.

“Gabrielle didn’t start one basketball game until her senior year,” said Banghart. “And when she started, she ended up setting the record for most 3s in a season. She speaks really to trusting the process. We always say you come to Princeton to do special things, and some of you are going to have to wait your time and some of you are going to be ready right away. She had to really wait her time and keep getting better. She trusted it. And when it was her time, it meant a lot to her how the team played in her senior year.”

A 3-point play by Alarie left Princeton down 73-68 with 3:29 left before the Tigers hit a dry spell. They had chances but could not cut it to a one-possession game even after Littlefield buried a 3-pointer with 36 seconds to go as finally the effects of Kentucky’s pressure materialized.

“They wear you down,” Banghart said. “They’re seventh in the country (in turnover margin). There are a lot of matchups we could have won more easily. They wear you down and Carlie played 40 minutes and Gabrielle played 40 minutes.”

Princeton finished with 16 turnovers. Kentucky had 7. The Wildcats held a 22-8 edge in points off turnovers.

“I thought we managed their pressure pretty well,” Banghart said.

“We can be sloppy with the ball even against a non-pressure team. Clearly it’s important that you don’t have too many wasted possessions, especially if the game is closer. I thought Carlie did a really good job managing the offensive side of the ball. Overall, ball control wasn’t the reason we lost. It was part of it, but it wasn’t the only reason and it could have been with a team like Kentucky.”

The season could have been over long before Kentucky finished the Tigers. Princeton’s slow start to the regular and Ivy seasons could have been devastating, but they continued to rise together as they got deeper into Ivy play. They finished with 12 straight wins before their NCAA loss.

“These kids were really locked in,” Banghart said. “Our backs were against the wall so we had no margin of error so they played like that. They trained like that. They prepared like that in terms of understanding game plans and things. We were all really sharp as the season got deeper. So much was riding on every game. Bella was a star all year, and that was helpful. The fact that she wasn’t available at the beginning of the season hurt us because it meant that your seeding was affected. We should have been a higher seed. We all just walked in and did their parts. Julia (Cunningham) came up huge in the Ivy League tournament. Grace has been steady. We’ve been a series of moving parts all year. We finally got healthy and they really locked in.”

This year’s seniors maintained a high standard and helped Princeton return to the NCAA tournament after another Ivy crown. The Tigers are hoping that with just the three graduating, they will have a chance to do the same and go farther in the NCAAs.

“Abby Meyers will be back and that makes a big difference,” said Banghart. “You have Abby, Bella, and Carlie, and some really high level freshmen that I expect to play right away. Then, of course, we have current freshmen that play a lot. Talent wise, you’re bringing back maybe the best talent we’ve had. This team showed it’s not just about talent. This team was not super talented nor was it our deepest. It just was gritty. We have to make sure the intangibles are sound, but in terms of what’s on paper, I don’t think a lot of people are feeling bad for us.”

The ending to this season may have come sooner than Princeton wanted, but it didn’t come with any regrets, and that was the biggest goal coming into the NCAA tournament. Even with a team that overall is young, Princeton represented its resilience right to the end.

“I felt like nobody came to the dance either just glad to be there or afraid of it,” said Banghart. “Those were two really good basketball teams that were on display. I think we showed the heart and soul of our program.”