Taking care of business, with an eye toward March

In late November, women’s basketball faced Rutgers, a blue-chip program that’s played in each of the last 10 NCAA Tournaments and reached the Final Four as recently as 2007. The last time the Tigers won a game against the Scarlet Knights, Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

The recent matchup was lopsided from the start — but this time, Princeton was the team in control. The Tigers went ahead in the second minute and never trailed, leading by as many as 25 points in the second half before wrapping up a 71–55 victory.

Niveen Rasheed ’13 led the Tigers to a 71–55 victory over Rutgers, a team they hadn’t defeated in more than 30 years.
Niveen Rasheed ’13 led the Tigers to a 71–55 victory over Rutgers, a team they hadn’t defeated in more than 30 years.
PHOTO: BEVERLY SCHAEFER

The feat barely seemed to register with the Princeton players. They exchanged high-fives and huddled at center court; co-captain Niveen Rasheed ’13 made a quick wave to the crowd. Coach Courtney Banghart said she was expecting smiles and giggles in the locker room, but instead it was “business as usual.”

The team’s nonchalance may be due to the fact that Rasheed and Co. have known nothing but success, with three Ivy League titles and a 74–13 record in the last three seasons. Perhaps only Banghart can understand how far her program has come. In November 2008, she took the Tigers to Rutgers during her second season as head coach. They left licking their wounds after an 83–35 loss.

Women’s basketball is the best show in town this winter, thanks in large part to Rasheed, the do-it-all guard/forward who led the Tigers in points, rebounds, and assists in the season’s first month. Supremely confident, she seems capable of nearly anything on the court. If there is a flaw in her game, it’s her willingness to attempt passes that others wouldn’t think to try. (She led the team in turnovers last year, though that’s partly a product of how often she handles the ball.)

Rasheed and this year’s other three senior starters — Lauren Polansky, Kate Miller, and Meg Bowen — have helped to transform Princeton into the undisputed Ivy leader, ahead of Dartmouth and Harvard, two schools that had 12 NCAA tournament bids in a 15-year span. Last year, the Tigers out­scored league opponents by an average of 31 points, the best in Division I, and fell three points shy of beating Kansas State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. A postseason win is the only goal that’s eluded Princeton, and the seniors hope to cross that off their list in March.

Banghart’s stellar recruiting has raised the bar for Ivy rivals. Harvard, likely to be the Tigers’ top challenger this year, landed a heralded forward, 6-foot-4-inch Temi Fagbenle, who started for Great Britain’s Olympic team last summer. But Princeton has a stockpile of young talent, too. Freshman forward Alex Wheatley has emerged as the team’s top-scoring reserve, and guards Blake Dietrick ’15 and Michelle Miller ’16 are the leading three-point shooters.

Rasheed remains the headliner. ESPN columnist Graham Hays called her the “best-kept secret” in women’s basketball, and both national ­player-of-the-year awards named her to their ­preseason watch-lists.

Rasheed has built her reputation with skills, not stats. She rarely tallies huge scoring totals, in part because of her team’s success. Last year, with the Tigers building huge leads, she played just 26 minutes per game against Ivy teams.

But for Princeton fans, those 26 minutes are worth the ticket.

PHOTO: JOHN O’NEILL

Brett Tomlinson is PAW’s digital editor and writes frequently about sports.