Early in the week leading up to the NCAA Tournament, well before Princeton played games in front of a U.S. president and two Supreme Court justices, head coach Courtney Banghart told reporters that her Tigers had become “America’s team.”
It wasn’t meant to sound grandiose. Rather, she was responding to the supportive messages she had received after Princeton, with the only perfect record among Division I women’s teams and a No. 13 ranking in the national polls, was seeded eighth in its tournament region. In the eyes of the selection committee, the Tigers were rated somewhere between 29th and 32nd in the 64-team tournament field. But the team took it in stride, winning its opening-round game against Wisconsin-Green Bay March 21 — the first NCAA Tournament victory in program history — before falling, 85–70, to top-seeded Maryland March 23.
Against Green Bay, President Barack Obama, the uncle of reserve forward Leslie Robinson ’18, watched from the stands as Princeton drained three 3-pointers to take an early lead. By halftime, the Tigers were behind, 34–33, trailing at the break for the first time since their opening game in November. They stormed ahead in the second half with a steady, confident performance punctuated with moments of brilliance, as when forward Annie Tarakchian ’16 snagged a rebound and whipped a baseball pass 70 feet down the court to Alex Wheatley ’16 for a breakaway layup. Princeton won 80–70, and Tarakchian finished with 19 points, 17 rebounds, and five assists.
Maryland, the Big Ten champion, proved to be a tougher matchup. Playing at home in front of more than 7,700 fans, the Terrapins featured stellar perimeter shooters and a formidable front line. Princeton seemed determined not to be outmuscled, scoring most of its first-half points on shots within 10 feet of the basket. The Tigers again trailed at halftime, 42–38, but never seemed overmatched.
The pivotal stretch came early in the second half. In a four-minute span, Princeton missed six consecutive shots while Maryland made five in a row, plus two free throws, and opened up a 17-point lead. Blake Dietrick ’15 did her best to pull the Tigers back into contention, scoring a team-high 26 points, but Maryland’s hot shooting never cooled. The Terrapins made 53.4 percent of their field-goal attempts, including 12-for-20 shooting on 3-pointers.
Dietrick, a co-captain and the lone senior starter, said after the Maryland game that she and her teammates left the floor with no regrets. “In this moment, I am just so happy and proud of every single one of them,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team.”