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Princeton Seeks Elusive 1st Tourney Win

Waco, Texas — Niveen Rasheed and Princeton can achieve their biggest goal without having to beat Brittney Griner and top-ranked Baylor.

The Tigers (22-6) will try today for their school’s first NCAA tournament win in their fourth straight season as Ivy League champions.

A victory over Florida State (22-9) likely would mean a game against the defending champion Lady Bears, who open against Prairie View A&M as the top seed on their home court in the first round of the Oklahoma City Region.

“Once we got in Waco yesterday, everything just kind of hit me,” said Rasheed, a two-time Ivy League player of the year. “It’s tournament time. Tomorrow is the biggest game of our lives.”

Rasheed and backcourt mate Lauren Polansky, another senior, were wide-eyed freshmen when the Tigers earned the school’s first NCAA berth in 2010. Princeton lost to St. John’s by 18 as No. 11 seed, then to another Big East opponent in Georgetown by 16 as a 12th seed a year later, when Rasheed missed most of the season with a knee injury.

The big disappointment came last year, when Princeton improved to a ninth seed — same as this season — but lost to Kansas State by three not too far from home, in Bridgeport, Conn. The happy-to-be-here gang has evolved into something of a we’d-better-get-this-one bunch.

“I have wasted too many valuable hours of my life re-watching that game, re-watching the possessions and recognizing maybe there was something I could have done differently, and there were certainly things we all could have done differently,” said Princeton coach Courtney Banghart, who has been part of eight of the past 15 Ivy League titles as a player and assistant at Dartmouth College and now with the Tigers. “You don’t prepare for the end because you don’t see it coming, and I’m not prepared for the end.”

Rasheed averages 16.9 points per game and also leads Princeton (22-6) in rebounding, assists and steals. But the career 46-percent shooter is just 13 of 36 (36 percent) in two tournament games, and is wary of not overhyping herself into a bad game.

“Maturity hopefully has taught me that,” said Rasheed, who scored 20 in last year’s loss to Kansas State. “It’s my fourth year, so definitely living, treating it as just another game, not getting caught up in the moment. The tournament definitely puts a lot of pressure on you, but you can’t look at it like that.”

Florida State (22-9) is back in the tournament after a seven-year NCAA run was snapped by last year’s 14-17 record — the first losing season under Sue Semrau since 2001-02.

The biggest difference for the Seminoles is senior guard Leonor Rodriguez of the Canary Islands. She averaged 3.9 points over the first three years of what was shaping up to be a disappointing career before breaking out for a team-best 15.1 points per game this season.

Semrau said she knew this team could be different the minute she realized Rodriguez was playing well enough to be a starter. In the season’s second game, she scored 21 points in a 98-67 win over Florida.

“You look at her history and ... wonder what will her career, what will she bring to the table?” said Semrau, now three years removed from the school’s only trip to the regional finals. “Certainly this is not anything we expected, and it’s something that everyone is excited about. She’s the kind of kid that you just want to see succeed.”

The Seminoles have three other players averaging in double figures and for a time were the only team in the country with five double-digit scorers. They are the only team nationally with four 1,000-point career scorers, led by guard Alexa Deluzio with 1,523.

Griner enters the tournament as the No. 2 scorer in Division I history with 3,203 points. She’ll need to average 32 points a game in another national championship season to catch career leader Jackie Stiles of Missouri State.

Right now, Griner just wants to play. The Lady Bears have been sitting around for almost two weeks since winning the Big 12 tournament by an average of 23 points over three games. Baylor (32-1) has won 30 straight since an early loss to Stanford, also a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.

“It’s been two long weeks, and it’s time to play,” Griner said. “We’re definitely ready to get on the floor and just start hooping.”

Prairie View (17-14) is making its third straight appearance as a 16th seed and Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament champion, this time after a four-overtime victory against Mississippi Valley State. The Lady Panthers lost to Baylor 66-30 in this same scenario two years ago, and were wiped out by Connecticut in 2012.

Only two Prairie View players are back from 2011, but one of them is Latia Williams, who averaged 15.7 points and 11.7 rebounds in the SWAC tournament. The Lady Panthers beat one tournament qualifier in Hampton and stayed close with another in Kansas.

“Hopefully the team that showed up and competed in those games comes out and competes against Baylor,” said Toyelle Wilson, who has reached the NCAA tournament in all three seasons as Prairie View’s head coach.