When women’s basketball coach Courtney Banghart came out of the locker room after Princeton’s game against Rutgers on Thursday night, she couldn’t hide a huge grin on her face. And Banghart had reason to smile — not only had her team just defeated Rutgers 71-55, Princeton’s first win in the New Jersey rivalry since 1978, but after a few shaky games at the beginning of the season, the Tigers seemed to be finding their groove.
“If we had played these guys 10 days ago, we would have lost by 20,” Banghart said after the game. “We had a lot of improvements to make.”
Even during its 12-game head-to-head losing streak, Princeton had given Rutgers plenty of scares over the years, including a fantastically entertaining 54-53 game in 2010 that was decided in the final seconds. This year, the Tigers didn’t put themselves in a position to let another one slip away. Against a team that was still receiving votes in the Top 25 polls, the hosts handled Rutgers’ pressure and rolled to a 26-9 lead out of the gate; Princeton’s advantage reached as many as 25 points in the second half. (“The score doesn’t really tell the story — we crushed them,” Banghart said.)
At the beginning of the season, it looked like Niveen Rasheed ’13 would have an even larger role in Princeton’s offense after the graduation of the second- and third-leading scorers from the 2011-12 team, Lauren Edwards ’12 and Devona Allgood ’12. And the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year certainly hasn’t had a bad season, averaging 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game while ranking second in the league in assists. But Rasheed is also shooting just 39 percent from the floor — well below her previous average — and has more turnovers than assists for the first time in her career.
The bigger story has been Princeton’s secondary scorers — which is a much deeper group than in past seasons. Rasheed is always a central part of the Tigers’ offense, but the other pieces seem almost interchangeable. At UCLA last Sunday, forward Kristen Helmstetter ’14 played a total of three minutes; in her next game, she started in place of injured guard Nicole Hung ’14 and scored 14 key points against Rutgers. Center Meg Bowen ’13 had a forgettable night on Thursday, finishing with one point and one rebound; against the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, on Sunday, she notched her first career double-double. “This team has shown that on every night, someone else steps up,” Banghart said.
Without one-on-one threats like Edwards and Allgood, who each scored more than 1,000 career points — and were both in attendance to watch their former teammates beat Rutgers — Banghart installed a new offense this season with more spacing, quicker passing and more versatility, designed to make every player a scoring threat.
The Tigers have had some learning pains, such as a 56-45 loss at Marist, but the new offense was on full display Sunday, when the team dropped 93 points without any individual scoring more than 13. “We’re getting so much better. We’re moving better without the ball, we’re better off the bench, our starters are finding a groove — and I don’t think we’ve gotten our best yet,” Banghart said after earning her 100th career win on Sunday. “I have no idea where this group is going to go, but it could be pretty good.”
All the adjustments and all the early-season tests have one goal: an NCAA tournament victory. The Tigers have checked almost everything else off of their lists — three straight Ivy League titles, a 41-1 conference record, the program’s first national ranking — and after losing a heartbreaker to Kansas State in last year’s tournament, the team’s seniors know this is their last chance.
“It was great to celebrate Rutgers … but we don’t want to be that team anymore,” Bowen said. “Now it’s time to move on, beat these really good teams and hopefully get to the place in March where we can continue winning.”
MEN’S BASKETBALL had a nice weekend as well, beating Kent State 62-50 on the road Saturday. T.J. Bray ’14 led the visitors with 15 points, going 3-for-3 from downtown, and Princeton shot 55 percent from the field to overcome an off night from Ian Hummer ’13 against a solid opponent. But the Tigers have still committed at least 17 turnovers in their last four games, which can doom them if the shots aren’t falling — as was the case Wednesday at Wagner, when they scored 19 points in 25 minutes after halftime to let a double-digit lead slip away.
MEN’S HOCKEY skated to two ties in the New York capital region this weekend, though they had vastly different meanings. Friday’s 2-2 draw with Rensselaer was disappointing — RPI is 0-5 in its other ECAC games — but by the same token, Saturday’s 4-4 tie with No. 8 Union was a good result. Princeton almost pulled off a major road upset of the Dutchmen, last year’s ECAC champion, before surrendering two goals in the final 7:03.
WOMEN’S HOCKEY also took two points from the same opponents, though it took the other path there, beating Union on Friday before losing to Rensselaer on Saturday. Kelly Cooke ’13 had a wonderful weekend on her home ice, scoring three of Princeton’s six goals and assisting another, but overall it was a bittersweet series for the Tigers, who could have done better against two teams that entered the weekend without an ECAC victory.
MEN’S SWIMMING and WOMEN’S SWIMMING each earned first place at the Brown Invitational this weekend, beating a handful of Ivy League foes along the way. Keep an eye on the women’s highly touted freshman class — Sada Stewart ’16, Beverly Nguyen ’16, and others have several victories under their belts already in the young season.
Kevin Whitaker ’13 is an economics major and Daily Princetonian sports editor.