Tigers Eye the Top: Undefeated Princeton Making Ivy History

Friday, February 20, 2015
Whenever the Princeton University women’s basketball team watches big-name programs on television, players hand each other defensive assignments, light-hearted preparation for postseason matchups that are more likely this year than ever before.

That was the drill last week when the Tigers gathered in front of a flatscreen at Frist Campus Center to watch No. 1 South Carolina face No. 2 UConn on ESPN2. Between jokes about defensive positioning and height differences, the Tigers watched the defending-champion Huskies prevail 87-62, leaving Princeton as the nation’s only undefeated team.

“It’s pretty cool to think that we could be on that exact screen in March,” junior forward Annie Tarakchian said. “We definitely still have work to do, individually and as a unit, but at the end of the day we do stack up.”

No. 16 Princeton has reached 23-0 by beating teams by an average of 25.7 points, the third-best differential in the nation, and the team has already achieved the best ranking ever for an Ivy League program.

At a school whose basketball history is best known for the men’s teams’ innovative offense, it’s fitting that the Tigers’ conversations focus on defense. That was head coach Courtney Banghart’s goal when the team reunited this fall, to change the approach of her players and her program.

“As a staff we checked ourselves at the door and said, ‘Always defense first,’ ” Banghart, a 2000 Dartmouth College graduate, said . “Whenever you critique a player, it’s defense first, when you critique an opponent, it’s defense first. We just changed our vocabulary.”

The dedication to defense — a “reinvention” in Banghart’s words — began after Princeton lost its final game of the 2013-14 season to finish second in the Ivy League. That qualifies as a down year for a Tigers program that had won the previous four league titles with a 54-2 conference record.

College teams are prohibited from practicing together with basketballs more than 40 days before their first game. Instead of filling preseason time with film study or track workouts, Banghart said she put the players through repeated defensive drills without a ball. They chose “Got Your Six” as an unofficial motto, a reference to the military term of covering a fellow soldier’s blindspot.

“That’s the key to our success right now,” junior guard Amanda Berntsen said of the Tiger defense, which has allowed the fifth-fewest points per game in the country.

Two days after South Carolina’s loss to UConn, the NCAA selection committee released its top 20, an early look at how it values the country’s best teams. Princeton wasn’t included.

That probably means the Tigers’ best-case scenario is a No. 6 seed, according to Charlie Creme, an ESPN women’s basketball analyst who projects seedings in the 64-team tournament.

“The rest of the schedule does not allow any resume improvement,” Creme said in an e-mail. Princeton’s remaining opponents are seven Ivy teams, two of which have winning records.

A No. 6 seed would be the best ever by an Ivy women’s team. It also could be enough to host the first two rounds, another conference first.

Ivy League teams are 1-21 in the NCAA tournament — the lone win being 16th seed Harvard’s 71-67 upset of Stanford in 1998.

Jean Marie Burr, Brown’s coach from 1988-2014, was in the stands for Princeton’s 86-58 road win against the Bears last weekend. She said the elite Ivy teams, including this year’s Princeton squad and that 1998 Harvard team, all excel in group defense.

“It’s not just a couple great defenders, it’s that they’re all on the same page,” Burr said. “Basketball can get you mentally in five different directions if you let it, so discipline is important, and you see that in any great team.”

The discipline extends beyond the court. Mollie Marcoux, Princeton’s first-year athletic director, called the team a “model program” for the university.

Michelle Miller, the second-best 3-point shooter in the country, is a chemistry major and winner of the school’s Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence; Alex Wheatley was one of five students accepted this year into Princeton’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative. Captain Blake Dietrick, the team’s leading scorer, will join the lacrosse team whenever the basketball season ends.

“They’re superstar students, superstar athletes and superstar citizens,” Marcoux said from her office, which overlooks the Jadwin basketball court.

The Tigers have trailed in the second half for a total of 92 seconds this season. They’ve won every game by double digits except two — last weekend’s 56-50 win at Yale and a 63-56 victory over American in November.

Players remember that American game more for what happened at halftime — when first lady Michelle Obama, a Princeton alum and freshman forward Leslie Robinson’s aunt, stuck her head in the locker room door and asked if she could speak to the team.

The day before, the team took a private tour of the White House and shot around on the residence’s outdoor court.

“That’s not something I would have ever told you I would have done in my life,” Tarakchian said.

While a 30-0 regular season may have seemed equally improbable, Banghart and her players say the undefeated record isn’t as important as their performance in the NCAA tournament. That’s when the defensive matchups they’ve jokingly discussed could turn to reality.

“This team is really good, and I can say that now because they’ve earned it,” Banghart said. “We can beat you from the outside, from the inside, on the run, we can defend and we can play tough. There’s no smoke and mirrors behind this record.”