When you win them all, people pay attention. Sure, Princeton women’s basketball had won Ivy League titles before — four in a row, from 2009–10 to 2012–13. The Tigers had beaten teams from the power conferences. They’d even reached the AP Top 25. But the number that made Princeton a national phenomenon last March was zero — as in 30–0 at the end of the regular season.
Even after the team’s second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament, head coach Courtney Banghart, the Naismith Coach of the Year, was in demand on the speaking circuit.
“It was such a great story to share,” she said. “A lot of people wanted to hear more about it — how it began, what it was like, some of the challenges. ... Our Tigers worked really hard, they trusted the process, and they earned it. And my job is to share it.”
Princeton’s success may have added a few miles to Banghart’s offseason itinerary, but the travels have not made a dent in her enthusiasm. At the start of her ninth season, she spoke with the same energy she had in year one. “We’ve got a long way to go,” she said in October, “but we are big, we’re fast, and we’re strong — tough.”
It’s no surprise that Princeton should again be the Ivy favorite: Four starters return, all seniors, along with Vanessa Smith ’17, a versatile reserve guard who likely will join the starting lineup. The returning group includes two All-Ivy players, forwards Alex Wheatley ’16 and Annie Tarakchian ’16; and sharpshooter Michelle Miller ’16, who is on pace to reach 1,000 career points early this season.
The Tigers’ experienced roster is only part of the story. Six freshmen have joined the team, one of the largest and most talented recruiting classes in Banghart’s tenure. The coaches have been particularly impressed by Sydney Jordan ’19, a small forward from Manassas, Va., and Qalea Ismail ’19, a guard from Bel Air, Md., and the daughter of longtime NFL wide receiver Qadry Ismail. Banghart expects all six newcomers to compete for playing time. “You’ll know who they are quickly,” she said.
With aspirations for a deep NCAA Tournament run, the Tigers will play a schedule that befits that goal, facing five nonconference teams that played in last year’s NCAA Tournament and five others that played in the Women’s NIT. December will be particularly ambitious, with home games against Michigan (Dec. 6) and Pittsburgh (Dec. 12) and a road trip to Ohio State (Dec. 18) and NCAA-quarterfinalist Dayton (Dec. 20).
While last year’s first-round NCAA Tournament win boosted Princeton’s reputation around the country, Banghart acknowledged at least one negative side-effect: Other schools have been warning recruits that the coach of the year isn’t likely to stay at Princeton for long. But as she spoke about her team this fall, she sounded fully invested in what she has built with the Tigers, beaming like a proud parent when she talked about the seniors and their lives away from the court — the service internships, job offers, med-school applications, and for one, a bid for the Rhodes scholarship.
“When I get them at 4:30, they’ll be all mine — and that’s an honor,” Banghart said. “I get the best kids, and I get to try to help them learn what it’s like to be a part of something. That’s what I’m paid to do.”