The reigning Ivy League Player of the Year is out, and the Princeton women’s basketball team isn’t fazed.
“These are climbers,” said Tigers head coach Courtney Banghart. “They get handed adversity and there’s no sulk, no woe-is-me, there’s not even a rah-rah about next man up. Individually they’re just climbing their own journey.”
Princeton already had significant changes with Banghart’s entire coaching staff being new, and then the defending Ivy League champions were dealt a couple gut punches to boot.
“What we’ve gone through injury wise, you’d think I wouldn’t be excited for opening day,” Banghart said. “I can’t wait.”
Bella Alarie ’20 won’t play in the season opener against Rider Nov. 6 after falling and breaking her arm in an October practice. The 6-foot-4-inch forward led Princeton in points and rebounds last year.
“I was really frustrated and devastated about this injury, and I sat down and wrote a list of reasons about why this is actually a good thing and will be a positive experience for me,” Alarie said. “One of the main things is Coach has been on my back even before I got here, ‘You need to get better at your left hand.’ I’m forced to. I cannot use [my right] at all. I think when I come back I’ll have a lot more skill with my left hand, and that’ll do me good in the long run.”
Being good in the long run is Princeton’s team goal as well. Alarie’s absence, coupled with the University’s year-long separation with Abby Meyers ’22 for a violation of school academic policy, means that the Tigers will tip off the season without four of their top five scorers from a year ago, as well as their top two rebounders. Leslie Robinson ’18, who also led Princeton in assists, and Tia Weledji ’18 graduated after helping Princeton go 24-6 overall, 12-2 in Ivy play.
“All of us are realizing we’re going to have to score more,” said Sydney Jordan ’19. “That’s a big thing that Coach has been getting on — making sure we’re aggressive. … It all goes back to ‘rise as one’ and making sure everyone is in it together to reach our goals.”
Home games in CAPS
Nov. 6 — Rider
Nov. 11 — George Washington
Nov. 14 — SETON HALL
Nov. 18 — Penn State
Nov. 22 — Depaul
Nov. 23 — Syracuse
Nov. 24 — Kansas State
Nov. 28 — Villanova
Dec. 2 — DAVIDSON
Dec. 8 — QUINNIPIAC
Dec. 11 — Monmouth
Dec. 15 — MARIST
Dec. 19 — St. Francis-Brooklyn
Dec. 21 — Hartford
Dec. 29 — New Hampshire
Jan. 5 — PENN
Feb. 1 — Columbia
Feb. 2 — Cornell
Feb. 8 — YALE
Feb. 9 — BROWN
Feb. 15 — Harvard
Feb. 16 — Dartmouth
Feb. 22 — CORNELL
Feb. 23 — COLUMBIA
Feb. 26 — Penn
March 1 — DARTMOUTH
March 2 — HARVARD
March 8 — Brown
March 9 — Yale
Jordan, Carlie Littlefield ’22, and Qalea Ismail ’19 return with starting experience from a year ago. Jordan and Ismail along with Gabrielle Rush ’19 are the only three seniors on the team, and there are only two juniors — Alarie and Taylor Baur ‘20.
“That experience you can lean on we haven’t had, so we’ve needed our seniors even more,” Banghart said. “It’s forced me to play a lot of young people and really invest in them. I think we’ll be a much better team come the winter when we start to get healthier. It’s been a really fun group. I think you guys will see a lot of new faces. You’ll see right away it’s got an embarrassment of riches at times.”
Banghart has gone on record saying that her most improved players are Alarie and Littlefield; the latter established herself as a top-flight point guard in her first season with 8.3 points per game, 2.8 assists per game, and 3.3 rebounds per game. Littlefield and Jordan will pace the team early.
“Sydney brings our defensive effort for the entire team,” Alarie said. “She carries us along on the defensive end. She’s the one we look to as an example on defense. I hate being guarded by her in practice. I’d hope it’s anyone else guarding me. On offense, you can count on her to get every rebound. She’s a really gritty player and she gets points up on the board just by playing really hard. She’s a great example of someone that plays hard and works really hard and is really successful because of that.
“And Carlie has really expanded her game. She gets points from every area on the floor. She finds her teammates, she pushes the ball, she gets rebounds. She’s everything you want in a point guard. These two are really incredible players. I’m really lucky to be playing with them.”
Baur will help strengthen the front line and make up for the loss of rebounding created by Robinson’s graduation. Baur missed her freshman year due to injury and last year showed signs of what she can contribute. Littlefield highlights the sophomore class that also includes less used Sydney Boyer ’21 and McKenna Haire ’21.
“The biggest area I’ve been working on this year is using my voice to lead,” Littlefield said. “I’m obviously not the new kid on the block this year. I have experience, and we don’t have many kids with experience. I think my biggest role this year is to use my voice on and off the court.”
She will be playing with a crop of six freshmen that are expected to bolster the Tigers. Grace Stone ’22, Neenah Young ’22, Maggie Connolly ’22, Kira Emsbo ’22, Julia Cunningham ’22 and Lexi Weger ’22 will have chances to contribute.
“This freshman class has been as talented as we’d hoped,” Banghart said. “We knew it was a good class. It’s been nationally heralded, but they’re freshmen and they can’t hide because there’s four of them on each team in practice. I’m expecting to use all of them a lot. You’ll see all of them early and often.”
The absence of Alarie and some major contributors from a year ago leaves a void that they can help to fill. Alarie and Princeton won’t offer a timeline for her exact return.
“Bella will be practicing here soon,” Banghart said. “With the fact of how important the league season is for the NCAA tournament berth, we’re not going to rush her back. She won’t be gone much longer. We’ve been playing without her so we’ll have to get accustomed to her again before we put her back in. She’ll be back as soon as she can, but not before I tell her she can play.”
In the meantime, there are more shots and more rebounds to be had for the rest of the Tigers. What they do with those opportunities will go a long way toward setting up the Ivy season.
“What I’m intrigued to see is how good we’ll be when we get fully healthy,” Banghart said. “You’re taking away some givens with what Bella brings and you’re asking other people to step in those roles. When she come back, now look at the experience we have in subbing in and replacing her and giving her time. We’ll be a better team when it’s all said and done.”