PHILADELPHIA — Princeton women’s basketball recovered from a slow start to the regular season, and later recovered from a slow start to the Ivy League season.
The Tigers could not do the same after a slow start in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament championship game.
Second-seeded Princeton fell to top-seeded Penn, 57-48, in the tournament final at the Palestra March 12. Penn (22-7) earned the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Princeton (16-13) is guaranteed a berth in the WNIT because of its second-place finish in the Ivy regular season.
“The longer we play, the better,” said Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart. “The more games this group gets under its wings, the better we’re going to be. It’s not a practice sport. It’s a game sport. You can get better in practice, but you can really get better in games. We have to figure out where we’re playing and when. It’s going to be soon.
“More importantly, they get a chance to play together. I thought today we didn’t play together. We want to do that regardless of the score. Princeton basketball plays together better than that. We’re looking forward to showing that in the NIT.”
Penn 57, Princeton 48
Ivy League Tournament Final
Bella Alarie ’20 led Princeton with team-highs of 11 points and 11 rebounds despite first-half foul trouble. It was her second Ivy tournament game with a double-double. She is budding star on a Tigers team that was young and inexperienced when the year began but has learned plenty.
“I think it takes a whole lot of heart,” Alarie said. “It takes rebounding, it takes outhustling the other team, playing with a lot of energy. Throughout the season, we’ve had our ups and downs, and it’s all come to how you come together as a team and just play together. That’s what we talk about all the time — playing together and playing as a team. That’s something I picked up on this year and will hopefully go on for the next couple years.”
Princeton shot only 28 percent from the floor and 29 percent from 3-point range in the final. The Tigers outrebounded Penn, 43-39, including 18 offensive rebounds. Princeton never led in the game and was forced to play catch-up from the opening minute.
“We obviously didn’t play well enough to win that game,” Banghart said. “That’s what I told those guys in the locker room.”
Just getting to the Ivy tournament final was an achievement. Princeton began the year 0-4 in non-conference games. Then the Tigers started the Ivy season by losing their first two games. Their development pushed them to second place in the Ivy standings and a chance to play in the first Ivy tournament.
“If you told me in the beginning of the year that we’d be in the finals of the Ivy League Tournament, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Banghart said. “Just sort of sheer grit and determination, improved play, we brought one player back who averaged over three points per game and one player who averaged more than eight minutes per game. And here we are with a chance to win. We just didn’t play well enough.”
Leslie Robinson ’18 had nine points, three rebounds, and three assists. Vanessa Smith ’17, the one returning senior with experience from last year, had eight points and a pair of rebounds. Gabrielle Rush ’19 had seven points and five rebounds. One night after the Tigers had 17 assists on 22 field goals in a convincing win over Harvard in the Ivy semifinals, they managed just seven assists on 18 baskets against Penn.
“Personally and as a team,” Robinson said, “I don’t think we played anywhere near the way that we know how to play, and that’s very frustrating personally and as a team because we know that they deserve our best. We didn’t give that, and the result is a product of that.”
While Princeton played one of its best quarters of the year in the third quarter to pull away from Harvard, the Tigers experienced one of their toughest quarters of the season in the second quarter against Penn as they fell further and further behind.
The Tigers looked as though they gained momentum going into the second quarter after Rush nailed a 3-pointer to cut their deficit to 15-14 with 16 seconds left in a first quarter in which no team led by more than four points. It was the closest Princeton would get the rest of the game.
Penn opened the second quarter on a 12-0 run for a 27-14 cushion as Princeton missed its first 14 shots of the quarter, had a shot clock violation and turned it over twice before Smith converted a layup with 1:13 left before halftime. Smith then put back her own miss with 20 seconds left to account for all of the Tigers’ second-quarter scoring before Penn took a 29-18 halftime lead on a late jumper. The damage was done.
“We stood around,” Banghart said. “This isn’t new to us. We probably have one quarter a game where we don’t trust each other. The ball died in people’s hands. We didn’t move. We didn’t cut off ball. We didn’t attack with aggressiveness. I think Penn is always in remarkable defensive positioning, probably one of the best teams I’ve seen in their defensive positioning. They’re very experienced. Their defensive positioning doesn’t change game to game and possession to possession, it’s always quality.
“What happened in the second quarter versus the other quarters was we just didn’t trust each other. That’s partly what’s been our problem offensively this year, but part of that is it’s hard to trust each other when you don’t trust yourself. I thought the inexperience comes in there. The environment was a little big for my team there.”
Princeton went into halftime with three forwards — Alarie, Robinson, and Sydney Jordan ’19 — all with three fouls apiece. Princeton shot 23 percent in the first half while Penn shot 42 percent. The Tigers defended the 3-point line well and held Penn to 2-for-11 from beyond the arc.
Princeton lost a little more ground in the third quarter as Penn made 4-of-7 3-pointers. Princeton was 0-for-3 from beyond the arc in the quarter and 5-for-16 on field goals. They fell behind by as much as 19 midway through the quarter.
Princeton trailed, 45-30, to start the fourth quarter but mustered a final comeback attempt. They made three of their first four 3-pointers. When Robinson scored with 6:33 left, Princeton cut the deficit back to its halftime margin of 11 points, 50-39. But Penn’s Kasey Chambers made her second 3-pointer and eighth point of the quarter to push the Tigers’ deficit back to 14 points.
Princeton clawed forward with a runner from Caroline Davis ’19 and 3-pointer from Alarie to make it 53-44 with 2:58 to go. Smith made two free throws with 1:06 left to edge the Tigers within 54-46 and Princeton had a chance to cut it further, but Davis’ 3-point attempt came up short with 42 seconds left.
“We were much more aggressive defensively and offensively, and that’s what I was trying to urge them along all game,” Banghart said. “We’re best when we’re aggressive. We’re not pretty. We’re gritty. And I thought we tried to be pretty in the second quarter.”
After a Penn free throw, Rush’s putback made it 55-48 with 19 ticks to go. Rush missed a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left and Penn finished the game at the foul line. It was the third time this season that Princeton fell to Penn, this time for the NCAA berth though the Tigers’ season will continue in the WNIT.
“There are a lot of teams that aren’t playing in our league right now and we are,” Banghart said. “That’s how far they brought us. I’m disappointed for them, but I think Penn is the better team so they should be the one representing us [in the NCAA Tournament].”
The Tigers have plenty of motivation as they head into the WNIT. It’s another chance to play together, to play better, and to try to extend their season and gain experience.
“This season, we’ve grown so much as a team,” Robinson said. “I think we can proud of that despite this game. I think no matter where we go next, we just have to keep on building. That’s just something that we can guarantee is that this team will continue to grow and continue to build.”