Three-peat champion women’s basketball dominates with defense

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With blowout victories over Harvard and Dartmouth this weekend, the women’s basketball team clinched a third straight conference championship and became the nation’s first team — men’s or women’s — to officially secure a trip to the NCAA Tournament. That Princeton won the league title is not much of a surprise, but how it has happened should raise eyebrows.
 
The Tigers are 38-1 in conference play over the past three seasons, and their dominance has reached new heights this year. All but one of Princeton’s Ivy League triumphs have come by at least 25 points (see graph), and its average margin of victory in conference play is a whopping 32.9 points per game, far and away the most dominant performance this league has ever seen. The current point differential record for a 14-game season is held by 1996-97 Harvard, at +22.1. (The 2010-11 and ‘09-10 Tigers rank second and third.)
 
“It’s crazy,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “I told them, don’t take that for granted — this is because of how you practice. It’s pretty special.”
 
Even with the conference crown in hand, Princeton still has something to play for. The difference between 14-0 and 13-1 would likely mean at least one seed line, maybe two, when the NCAA Tournament brackets are released in two weeks, which will be very important for a program looking for its first March Madness victory. But if recent results are any indication, closing strong will not be a challenge for the Tigers, even with two of their toughest games of the season coming next week at Yale and Brown.
 
Don’t be fooled by the gaudy scoring numbers: Princeton’s true strength lies at the defensive end. With a pressure-oriented defense and players who take advantage of opportunities in transition, the Tigers play fast-paced games, which lead to more scoring chances for each team. Their 78 points per game have come on an average of 72.4 possessions — still impressive, but hardly other-worldly. The offense revolves around a crazy ability to rebound; the Tigers have grabbed an unheard-of 49 percent of their own misses in league play (a normal rate is in the low 30s).

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Starting forward Kate Miller ’13, pictured in a 2011 game against Harvard. Princeton’s defense has helped the Tigers to a record pace in the team’s scoring margin against Ivy League opponents. (Photo: Beverly Schaefer)
But despite the high tempo, the Tigers have allowed just 44.8 points per game; do the math, and that comes out to 0.61 points per possession. For context, according to wbbstate.com, the Division-I average is 0.86; no other team is holding its conference opponents to less than 0.65 points per possession.
 
Only one question really remains: Will the Tigers’ defense be this good against a tournament opponent in March?
 
“They’ll have to be,” Banghart said. “This is how they’ve defended all year, against everybody.”
 
Quick Takes
 
MEN’S TRACK & FIELD took first place at the Heptagonal Championships last weekend, riding some key performances in the long distances and field events to a tight victory over host Cornell; WOMEN’S TRACK & FIELD finished a disappointing sixth. The men’s track and cross country teams have now won five consecutive conference titles and six of the last seven. Princeton teams have now won seven Ivy League championships in 2011-12, three more than any other school.
 
Without the benefit of home-court advantage, WOMEN’S SQUASH could not duplicate the men’s feat from last weekend, falling to Yale 7-2 in the semifinals and eventually taking fourth place. Todd Harrity ’13 and Julie Cerullo ’13 will contend for their respective national titles at next weekend’s individual championships, but both will be underdogs against Harvard newcomers ranked in the top 150 worldwide.
 
WOMEN’S HOCKEY saw its season come to a close at Harvard, with a 4-3 overtime loss capping a 2-0 series sweep. Despite returning most top players from last year’s fourth-place team, Princeton couldn’t crack the top half of the league and fell in the ECAC quarterfinals for a sixth straight year. MEN’S HOCKEY will try to have more postseason success in a three-game series at 6-seed Yale next weekend; the Bulldogs beat Princeton 5-2 at Baker Rink on Friday.
 
After holding on to a glimmer of hope with a few strong weeks, MEN’S BASKETBALL’s dreams of an Ivy League title likely were dashed at Harvard on Friday, though it was a much closer call than expected. The Crimson entered the game as roughly an 11-point favorite with the nation’s second-longest home winning streak, but Princeton led for much of the game before finally succumbing, 67-64. The Tigers, who have been playing very well offensively, can still reach 10 league wins for a third straight year by winning their final three games at home. Slim hope remains in the Ivy title race, but the Tigers would need to see Harvard lose its final two games and have Penn drop at least two of its last three.
 

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Kevin Whitaker ’13 is an economics major and Daily Princetonian sports editor.

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