By Mel Greenberg
PRINCETON, N.J. – Four years ago when Princeton was on the way to winning the first of three straight Ivy titles and approaching a fourth on the horizon, the Tigers would have had trouble even with the strongest pair of binoculars in the world locating their traveling partner Penn, which was under first-year coach Mike McLaughlin.
That was then, this is now.
With the second part of the league race under way and into the record books Friday night, it is none other than McLaughlin’s red-and-blue who are the first sighting of pursuers in Princeton’s rear view mirror after Penn took over sole possession of second place last weekend.
The odds are quite long that the Quakers can overtake the Tigers in the remaining weeks of the season but with Penn leading the seven mortals behind the frontrunners, McLaughlin’s team has a legitimate shot at this moment of landing either the automatic bid to the WNIT as the top league team not in the NCAA field or possibly getting an invite as an at-large team.
“You know, I think we’re now becoming the toughest road trip weekend for the rest of the league because we both defend hard,” Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said after her Tigers decimated Columbia 98-36 here in Jadwin Gym and she learned that Penn routed Cornell 67-40 at home at The Palestra 35 miles down the road in Philadelphia.
On Saturday night, the road visitors will switch locations with Cornell coming here at 6 p.m. to play what has become the Jewel of New Jersey while Columbia will play at Penn at 7 p.m. after the annual Blue and Red alumni game.
In the Princeton game, freshman Michelle Miller set a career high with 21 points off the bench in a situation where the Tigers’ future was on display as she and her classmate rookies saw much time playing together.
Megan Bowen scored 17 points, while Niveen Rasheed, the two-time reigning Ivy player of the year who also shared this week’s Ivy award with Penn freshman Keiera Ray, had 15 points and seven rebounds. Megan Bowen also scored in double figures with 17 points while freshman Annie Tarakchian had 10 points.
Furthermore, Princeton senior Kate Miller scored her 500th point during the game.
No one scored in double digits for Columbia (3-19, 1-7) with Miwa Tachibana being the top visiting scorer totaling eight points.
In the Penn game, Alyssa Baron had 11 points, Kara Bonenberger scored 10, and Ray joined teammate Brianna Bradford with nine points each.
Ray also received the Ivy freshman of the week award on Monday as well as the national player of the week honor from the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).
Clare Fitzpatrick scored 15 points for Cornell (11-11, 3-5), who’s coach Dayna Smith was a Penn assistant in 2001 when the Quakers won their first Ivy title. A former star at Rhode Island, she was recently named as one of the Atlantic 10 women’s basketball legends who will be honored next month on the morning of the championship game at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
With not much game action to discuss involving either team Friday night, the body of work over the last four years by Princeton (17-5, 8-0 Ivy) and Penn (13-9, 6-2) are worthy conversations for separate reasons.
Princeton and Penn were galaxies apart in 2009-10 as the Rasheed Era arrived for the Tigers to bring them wonderful things including a first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Banghart was in her second season and since then has elevated the Tigers beyond their Ivy affiliation to a squad with national respect, including representing the league at the end of last season as the first-ever member to land a ranking in the Associated Press women’s basketball poll.
The win over Columbia Friday night tied Harvard’s 32-game Ivy win streak (1995-96 thru 1997-98) that was set when future WNBA star Allison Feaster played for the Crimson, who during that time gained the only win ever for an Ivy team in the NCAA tournament. That was the famous first-round 16th seed vs. 1 upset when Harvard won at Stanford, which had lost two key starters during the previous week.
Princeton, which is now 48-1 in the Rasheeed Era, snapped the Harvard run with a 56-53 win on Feb. 7, 1998. The one Ivy loss in the current domination was to Harvard when she was sidelined most of her sophomore season with a knee injury.
There is little doubt that when the Ivy week ends Saturday night, the Tigers will be the new holder of the streak-record heading into the rematches up North next weekend at Harvard and Dartmouth.
The current Princeton group has gone into the NCAA tournament with the highest seeds ever for an Ivy school and came close to winning the first round last year and have been focused on getting the job done this season.
Banghart has during the past four years scheduled comparable to a BCS school to put her team in the best possible mode and even though the back half of the season lowers the threshold of opponents, every opponent is the same in the eyes of the Tigers.
“It’s getting near the end of the Ivy season,” said Rasheed after recording her 1,500th point and grabbing her 800th rebound, only the fourth Tiger to do so on
the boards. “We have to build good habits and no lack in any way because March is around the corner.
“We need our freshmen to step up. And they have grown since the start of the season. We keep working on getting better and what we practiced during the week. It’s good thing when we see a result like this and the freshmen playing amazing. The second five is almost as good as the first five,” Rasheed explained.
“Honestly, I had no idea this week that I was close to 1,500. That’s great but it’s just a testament to my teammates and the way we play. It’s a great testament to my career but I won’t be happy until we get that (NCAA) win. I say that every day.”
Rasheed now has 1,512points and 802 rebounds.
Though the fans were hot to see Princeton get its first-ever 100th point on the Tigers’ last possession with less than 30 seconds left, Banghart had her squad slam on the offensive breaks, similar to taking a knee in football and let the clock run out.
Two weeks ago Princeton set a program record with 99 points in a rout at Yale.
“They’re (her players) about breaking records and 100 points have never been done here. But there’s a time and place for that and this wasn’t that moment,” said Banghart, who lauded her team for not taking anything for granted in playing Columbia.
“When I walked in the lockerroom, I said, `Take a lot from the senior class and the way they approach every opponent – like Columbia, like Harvard, like DePaul, like Villanova.’ And I think that’s just the class of the league.”
A Program Grows In The Palestra
When McLaughlin arrived at Penn, realizing his long-held dream to coach in the Big Five, he had achieved years of success guiding Holy Family in Northeast Philadelphia as a Division II national power.
But reality hit quickly with not much talent on the Quakers roster and it took until the next to the very last game of the season in which the second overall victory and first Ivy win of 2009-10 was attained.
The arrival of the talented Baron the following season helped Penn into the fastest turnaround in program history and Penn got better again a year ago with the addition of Bonenberger.
There have been some near misses along the way in terms of upsets, one notably near the outset of this season when Penn let Virginia escape the Palestra at the finish.
Knee injuries have also caused problems, but as this season has gone along Penn has suddenly become its own special disc jockey spinning records and notable achievements.
A week ago at home, the Quakers snapped Harvard’s 17-game hex on them and then romped over Dartmouth for the first sweep of the duo since 2001 at home and 2004 on the road.
That moved Penn, picked fourth in the preseason league media poll, into second place and the winning continued Friday night with the differential over the Big Red the largest since a 74-26 win on Jan. 31 in 1981.
The differential over an Ivy opponent was the largest since beating Columbia 79-43 on January 18, 2000. It’s also the first time in 33 seasons Penn has beaten two straight Ivy rivals by more than 20 points.
Penn has now won four straight and 6-of-7 with a chance for more Saturday against Columbia, which would surpass both the overall and Ivy win totals of a year ago.
The Guru will switch off Saturday and appear at the Palestra for Penn tweeting the game at @womhoopsguru but will track the action here.