How Princeton women’s basketball clawed its way to the top of the Ivy League

The 2019-20 Princeton women’s basketball team’s campaign ended all too quickly due to COVID-19, but not before demonstrating the enduring strength of the program under a new coaching staff. (Princeton Athletics)

The 2019-20 Princeton women’s basketball team was by no means a “one-hit wonder.”

It was the product of a process begun more than a dozen years ago. Successful coaches do more than win games; they build a program, an organization that can produce highly competitive teams year after year. Successful programs are designed to withstand graduations, injuries, and the inevitable clash of egos and personalities in groups of a dozen or more highly competitive and talented individuals. To achieve success in college basketball over time is incredibly difficult. To achieve credibility on the national scene with a mid-major program and no athletic scholarships defies belief. Princeton has done that.

In 1970, the 225th year of Princeton’s existence, school administrators decided to adopt the revolutionary idea of coeducation, not coincidentally, I have always believed, in the year following my graduation. One year later, varsity basketball was introduced as a women’s intercollegiate sport. The Tigers enjoyed early success, winning the first four Ivy titles following the launching of a women’s postseason tournament in 1975. (The women played a postseason tournament until 1982. In 2017, the present tournament format was adopted. The top four men’s and women’s teams compete at the same site over the same weekend to determine the league’s NCAA representatives.)

For 24 years between 1975 and 1999, the Tigers shared but one Ivy title, in 1985 with Brown. The 1999 squad accomplished the best Ivy record in the history of the sport at Old Nassau, 11-3, good enough for a first-place tie with Dartmouth. The Big Green won the playoff to advance to the NCAA tourney. The best player on the Dartmouth team, and perhaps in the Ivy League, was a feisty backcourt player with immense skills at both ends of the court, Courtney Banghart. She would help lead the Big Green to back-to-back titles.

In its first 36 seasons, Princeton, under eight different coaches, compiled an overall record of 442-442, hardly the stuff of legend. In the 13 seasons since, the Tigers have won 280 while losing 104. Along the way they have captured nine Ivy titles and have made as many appearances in the NCAA Tournament. In 2016, Penn captured the Ivy crown, but the Tigers were invited to the tournament, the only two-bid year in the history of the Ivy League, a clear indication of how far the league had progressed in the previous decade.

A new beginning 

For 12 of those seasons, the coach was the same Courtney Banghart whose greatest moment as a player was winning the Ivy title playoff against Princeton in 1999. After three years as a high school coach in Alexandria, Va., she returned to her alma mater as an assistant coach. The greatest player in Dartmouth history was returning home to prepare for a career as a coach. During her tenure, the Big Green won two more Ivy titles in 2005 and 2006.

In 2007, the head coaching position at Princeton was open. In one of the more consequential hires in his 20-year career as athletic director, Gary Walters wasted little time, turning the keys over to the 29-year-old Courtney Banghart.

“As a basketball person my whole life, I felt very confident about Courtney’s prospects right from the start,” Walters said. “Dartmouth was one of the stops along the way in my own coaching career and I was well aware of her as a player and a coach.”

Women’s basketball at Princeton and in the Ivy League was about to change forever. The athletics folk in Hanover were by no means thrilled to lose their coaching heir apparent.

With her eyes wide open, Courtney Banghart set about the task of leading her team and her league out of a basketball backwater. Her goal, at the very least, was relevance on the national scene.

She did not get off to an encouraging start. Her first team, reflecting little roster turnover from the previous year, won seven games while losing 23, finishing sixth in the league. Things improved in year two, as the Tigers checked in with a 14-14 record. The 9-5 Ivy record, a five-game improvement, was good enough for third place.

Champions assembled

Once Banghart began to attract her own players, the results were dramatic. She won her first Ivy crown in 2010 with a perfect 14-0 record. From 2010-11 through 2015-16, the Tigers boasted a league record of 91 wins against seven losses, winning the Ivy League championship six times. She exhibited all the skills of a great coach: deep knowledge of the game, the ability to handle game situations, the establishment of a nationwide recruiting apparatus, and, most importantly, the ability to motivate players. A Banghart team was always greater than the sum of its parts.

The 2014-15 team represents the successful culmination of everything Banghart was trying to accomplish at Princeton, at least until the 2019-20 team took the court. It took Banghart four years to assemble the pieces of the remarkable 2015 squad. In 2011, she brought in a true superstar, Blake Dietrick, a Massachusetts native who would achieve Ivy Player of the Year status and went on to the WNBA. Californians Annie Tarakchian and Michelle Miller, Alex Wheatley from Pennsylvania and Ohio product Taylor Williams came on board the next year in what ranks as the single best recruiting year Banghart ever enjoyed.

Vanessa Smith from Ohio and Georgia’s Taylor Brown joined in 2013. The juggernaut was complete with the 2014 arrival of freshman Leslie Robinson, who grew up on the campus of Oregon State University.  Robinson’s father Craig was the head men’s coach at OSU and is one of the greatest players in Tiger history. He and his sister Michelle are Chicago natives and both are Tiger alumni. The former was a two-time Ivy Player of the Year, and the latter was a two-term First Lady. Upon graduation, Leslie was selected in the WNBA Draft.

The 2015 team finished the regular season with an unblemished record of 30-0, the best in the history of the Ivy League, for men as well as women. Banghart’s squad entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 13 team in the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today’s Coaches polls. They traveled to College Park, Md., for a first-round matchup against Wisconsin-Green Bay won by the Tigers, 80-70. Alas, the bubble finally burst in the second round when the Tigers faced host Maryland, losing 85-70.

As noted, the Tigers finished second to Penn in 2016, losing a heartbreaker at home to the Quakers, 62-60, in the regular season finale. With 23 wins, the Tigers were extended a second league bid to the tournament. The following season saw Princeton slip to an almost unfathomable 16-14 record and another second-place finish in the Ivy League. That season was noteworthy, however, in that it marked the arrival of the best player to ever don the orange and black, Bella Alarie. As a freshman, Alarie was honored as a first team All-Ivy player, the first of four first-team selections she would achieve.

In 2017-18, order was restored as the Tigers skated to another Ivy title, finishing the season with a record of 24-6. The 2018-19 team would turn out to be the last Banghart would coach at Princeton. A broken wrist suffered by Alarie in October threatened to derail the whole season before it began. The Tigers struggled mightily out of the gate, losing seven of their first eight games. Alarie reportedly used the down time to work on moves with her other arm. Upon her return, the Tigers turned their fortunes around, finishing the Ivy season at the top of the standings at 12-2. When they won the Ivy tournament, Banghart reached the postseason for the 10th time.

With no Ivy worlds left to conquer, Courtney Banghart resigned as Tiger coach soon after the end of the season. She was hired to restore to greatness the women’s team at North Carolina for a reported salary of $700,000 per year. The Ivy League benefited mightily by the presence of Banghart on the Tiger bench. While the Tigers and Penn dominated the league, the other Ivy programs all stepped up their games. Banghart left behind a conference ranked as the seventh-best of the 32 in Division I.

Banghart also left behind a supremely talented and deep roster.

A full cupboard

Bella Alarie had won the second of her unprecedented three straight Ivy Player of the Year awards, and was poised to rewrite the Tiger record book in her final season. Alarie’s father Mark was an excellent player at Duke and went on to an enviable career in the NBA. The Bethesda, Md. native attended the prestigious National Cathedral School, in Washington, D.C., where she attracted lots of national attention from an early age. She was a member of two Pan American Games teams earning silver medals for each effort. She also won a silver medal as a member of the U19 USA Women’s World Cup team in 2017. Alarie’s grandfather graduated from Princeton in the 1950s and later taught at the school. Among her cherished childhood memories are trips to Old Nassau with her grandfather to attend the annual Reunions held at the end of the school year. When Courtney Banghart came calling, she found the door wide open.

Carlie Littlefield came to Princeton from Waukee, Iowa. After two seasons under the tutelage of Banghart, Littlefield developed into a first-team All-Ivy guard. Displaying little emotion on the court, Littlefield is clearly in charge. She is a terrific ball handler, allergic to turnovers, and the spark plug for the offense. She is the team leader in assists and the second-leading scorer behind Alarie. In 2019-20, when the team established its identity as a defensive powerhouse, Littlefield emerged as an indispensable member of the team.

Banghart brought in a second scoring guard with Littlefield who was another player from the greater D.C. basketball hotbed, Abby Meyers, from Potomac, Md. Meyers was a 2,000-point scorer in high school who could create for herself off the dribble while also possessing the ability to shoot the three. She presented a nightmare for defenders. Forced to sit out her second season, she returned to school for the 2019-20 season as a sophomore.

Senior Taylor Baur, from St. Louis, was back to join Alarie in the frontcourt. Baur had shown the ability to take advantage of the inevitable double and triple-team defenses thrown at Alarie. An effective inside scorer and a ferocious rebounder, Baur was more than content to leave the spotlight for other players … as long as the team was successful.

Grace Stone, Maggie Connolly and Julia Cunningham were freshmen in Banghart’s last season. As the season wore on, these players began to get more playing time. Each showed a lot of promise and each made positive contributions as the Tigers made another title run.

Banghart would also leave behind two promising freshmen whom she recruited but would never coach. Ellie Mitchell, another of those D.C. hotshots from Chevy Chase, Md., came in as a 6’ forward with almost unlimited potential. The other, a 6’5” center, Kira Emsbo from Lakewood, Colo., was recruited as a possible replacement for Alarie in the future. Emsbo’s identical twin sister plays at Yale, setting up the possibility of some tantalizing head-to-head battles to come. An injury early in the year sent Emsbo to the bench, but she is expected to return at 100% next year.

The Tigers returned more than 90% of their scoring, rebounds and assists for the 2019-20 campaign. What they had lost was the greatest coach in the history of the school and the league. Whoever came in would have a very good team but very big shoes to fill.

The perfect fit 

Princeton’s athletic director, Mollie Marcoux Samaan, was one of the best female athletes in Tiger history. She was a four time All-Ivy first-teamer in ice hockey and a varsity letter-winner in soccer. In her first five years as AD, she would hire 13 head coaches, but none of greater consequence than the successor to a legend.

Samaan’s search soon focused on Carla Berube, the head coach at Division IIl Tufts, a position she held for 17 seasons. Rarely, if ever, have the expectations and needs of the employer matched so perfectly with those of the prospective employee.

If required to describe Berube’s career in one word, that word is winner. During her four-year career as a player at the University of Connecticut, the Huskies enjoyed a record of 132-8. Her 1995 team capped a perfect 35-0 season with the national championship. At Tufts, her Jumbos teams won 80% of their games, going 384-96. She reached the Dlll final twice, the Final Four four times and the Sweet 16 nine times, including eight straight to conclude her tenure.

Although she had several opportunities to coach at Dl schools, Berube eschewed the hectic pace of the high majors, where it’s all basketball, all the time, for players and coaches. Berube had preferred, to this point in her career, to remain in the more relaxed environment of Dlll. At Tufts, the emphasis was on academics. Basketball holds a cherished place in the life of the campus but is kept in what Berube believed was the proper context.  Princeton offered the best of both worlds plus a welcoming community in which to raise children. Berube has three, two boys and a girl.

Marcoux Samaan loves to tell the story of the morning her secretary came into her office to say, “There’s somebody named Geno Auriemma on the phone. Do you want to take the call?”

She did, indeed, want to take the call.

Auriemma was effusive in his praise of his former player. In his opinion, Berube was the perfect fit for the Tiger program on every level.

“She is a leader, whip smart and always striving to be better. Her knowledge of the game is deep and she is able to communicate her knowledge to her players,” said Auriemma, perhaps the most successful and respected coach in women’s basketball. Having met with Berube, Marcoux Samaan had reached the same conclusion. The appointment was announced in May 2019. Tiger Nation reacted positively to the news.

Great coaches are, first and foremost, great teachers. Successful teachers are communicators, motivators and leaders. In her 19 years of coaching, and in her playing career at the top rung of the D1 ladder, Berube developed a sense that defense is the key to success over time.

Such a notion is surely counterintuitive in the modern culture of basketball. Kids grow up trying to figure out how to get the ball in the basket, not trying to keep it out. Learning to shoot is like learning how to hit a golf ball in the sense that it can be done while one is all by herself. All you need is a ball and a basket. Rarely do you encounter a kid by herself on a playground court practicing defense.

Berube understood that half the game is defense. If you dominate that half you can actually build momentum for the offense. As she explains, “It’s not all that complicated. Defense is a combination of heart, work and communication on the court, a mindset, if you will.”

In her view, the object of defense is, first, to create turnovers. The more you have the ball the more likely you are to turn possessions into points. Since the offense has a limited time to shoot, good defense can force the offense to force shots before the clock expires. Awkward shots more often than not turn into defensive rebounds. And, of course, shot clock violations are turnovers. Berube was well aware that Alarie was already the Tigers’ career leader in blocked shots, a great weapon for the defense. Over the course of a 40-minute game, offenses facing the defensive pressure favored by Berube grow frustrated and sloppy, creating momentum for her offense.

The issue for Berube was whether her new charges would buy in. After all, they were the most talented group in the league and they had enjoyed tremendous success. Berube was confident her team would embrace what she wanted for them because they were not only a very smart group, they had an off-the-charts desire to win.

At that point, the new skipper had no relationships with any of the Tiger players, except for nodding acquaintances through USA Basketball. She had not recruited any of them and she had no input in setting up the out-of-conference schedule. Typically, under Banghart, the Tigers played, shall we say, an ambitious national schedule.

A stellar campaign

The Tigers opened the 2019-20 campaign with blowout wins over Rider and George Washington, and their first real test came Nov. 15 against a perennial NCAA tourney participant, Seton Hall. The Pirates mistreated the Tiger defense by scoring 76 points, the second-highest total the Tigers surrendered for the entire season. It was the most they would give up in a win. Littlefield’s 19 points and freshman Ellie Mitchell’s seven rebounds helped seal the narrow 78-76 win.

The Tigers began to attract national attention. Courtney Banghart’s team was fast becoming Carla Berube’s.

Looming just ahead was a trip to one of the powers of the Big Ten, the Iowa Hawkeyes, a top-20 team. This trip was arranged, of course, to give Carlie Littlefield the opportunity to play before her home state fans, of whom almost 6,000 turned out at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, by far the largest crowd that would see the Tigers play all season.

The fans saw a classic contest. Princeton broke quickly from the gate, taking a 16-14 lead after the first quarter behind Alarie’s 10 points. A late Hawkeye three cut the Tigers’ lead at the half to 10, 37-27. Iowa made its expected run, drawing within two after three quarters. The final period produced a real nail-biter. Things started well for the Tigers who led by six at the six-minute mark. Once again the Hawkeyes stormed back to take the lead, 61-60, with two minutes remaining. Free throws by the home team appeared to put the game out of reach, 67-64, with eight tenths of a second on the clock. Berube called time out to set up a play designed to get Julia Cunningham an open look for a three. Coming across the half-court line in full stride, Cunningham launched a 40-foot prayer as the buzzer went off. When it was answered the Tigers had sent the contest into an extra session.

Once again, the Tigers jumped out to a six-point lead, but, once again, the talented Hawkeyes were not to be denied at home. The final score was Iowa 77, Princeton 75. The Tigers suffered their first, and as it turned out, last loss of the campaign.

According to Berube, the Tigers in that game proved to themselves and to their coach that they could play at the highest level.

“It was so much fun to coach in the amazing atmosphere in that arena. Our kids did not know what to expect, but the way they stepped up to perform at that level told me that we were going to be a special team going forward,” Berube said.

Princeton completed the out-of-conference portion of the schedule with an impressive 12-1 record. Wins over Marist, Penn State, a 35-point blowout at Missouri and a convincing 16-point win at St. Louis kept the Tigers comfortably within the top 25 as they headed into the Ivy season.

The first Ivy matchup was scheduled for January 11 at The Palestra against the Penn Quakers. Like the Tigers, Penn had concluded its out-of-conference schedule with just one loss. In the preseason poll of Ivy coaches, Penn and Princeton each received the same number of first-place votes.

The Penn-Princeton rivalry in the Banghart years was, to put it mildly, spirited. When Pete Carril coached the Tiger men’s team the Tiger-Quakers contests were known as the Duke-UNC games of the Ivy League. In the last decade the same relationship developed between the women’s programs, as these two teams won or shared every title. Penn’s team, with Mike McLaughlin at the helm, had become a nationally respected squad every year.

Carla Berube was making her Ivy League debut in one of the most iconic venues in all of college basketball. After one quarter of action, the Tigers held an 18-16 lead. Penn rookie Kayla Padilla, one of the most heralded recruits in the league, lived up to the hype with nine tallies in the opening session. Perhaps the most telling statistic, however, was the fact that Eleah Parker, Penn’s All-Ivy post player, was held to one field goal. It was her only score in the game.

Ominously for the Tigers, Littlefield drew her second foul with 14 seconds remaining in the quarter. She hacked Padilla, who was in the act of shooting a three-pointer. The foul sent Littlefield to the bench, where she observed the entire second quarter, and Padilla to the charity stripe, where she canned three free throws.

Padilla, a pesky scoring machine, kept the Quakers close. At the half, the Tigers held a 33-30 lead.

In retrospect, the third quarter was a milestone for this Tiger team, demonstrating just how powerful its defensive identity had become. With Littlefield back on the court, the Tigers ramped up the pressure, holding the Quakers to just four points in the first seven minutes of the period. Meanwhile, at the other end of the court, the Tigers, behind the scoring heroics of senior co-captains Alarie and Taylor Baur, built a 17-point lead, 51-34.

Princeton kept its foot on the gas in the final quarter, pulling away to an eventual 75-55 victory and first place in the league. For the visitors it was Senior Night as Alarie and Baur each contributed a double-double in points and rebounds. In all, six Tigers played more than 20 minutes, and a seventh, Abby Meyers, scored 14 points in just 18 minutes. Princeton outrebounded Penn by 19 and held the Quakers to a season-low 12 points in the third stanza.

What was expected to be the toughest league game turned into a 20-point rout. The Tigers now headed into the exam break and a three-week hiatus from hoops.

The stretch run – and a jarring stop

No coach enjoys three weeks off in the middle of the season. No one can be sure what effects such a break will have on the collective psyche of her team. No one knows how long it will take the team to recapture its momentum.

The Tigers resumed play on January 31 at Dartmouth. As might be expected the Tigers showed signs of rust out of the gate. Dartmouth jumped out to an early 14-8 lead before the Tigers hit stride, scoring five straight to cut the Big Green’s advantage to one at the end of the quarter. Having given up six baskets in the opening period, the Tigers did a quick about face, surrendering only eight more in the game.

In the most amazing defensive run of the season Princeton held Dartmouth to single digits in each of the final three quarters. Alarie’s 23 points paced the Tigers in the 66-34 demolition of the Big Green. Momentum restored.

Princeton’s subsequent 60-46 win over Harvard marked the closest margin for the Tigers in the Ivy season, and their next win, a 60-29 home rout of Cornell, put an exclamation point on Berube’s 400th career win as a college coach.  Win number 401 came the next night against upstart Columbia, 77-55, for Princeton’s 13th straight victory.

Following a 55-39 road win over a Yale squad whose 15 victories at that point included a head-turning triumph over Banghart’s North Carolina quintet was an 85-48 cruise past last-place Brown. The Tigers subsequently dealt Harvard two of their patented single-digit quarters in a 66-45 win before they surrendered 55 points to Dartmouth – the most they would give up all season.

Then in the third game for the Tigers in an eight-day stretch, they obliterated Penn, 80-44, after Alarie had been honored as USBWA National Player of the Week earlier in the day. She celebrated with a stat line befitting her status: 21 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots.

Princeton’s 10th Ivy League win clinched a spot in the Ivy League Tournament, and the team clinched an outright Ivy title by crushing Brown, 81-39, before facing off with Yale in the team’s final home game of the season.

Senior co-captains Alarie and Baur were honored in a raucous pregame ceremony featuring a lengthy standing ovation from a most appreciative home crowd.

The Tigers cut down the nets after receiving the Ivy League Championship trophy from Executive Director Robin Harris. As the Tigers left the court, they were serenaded by a cascade of cheers and applause. The Jadwin building staff scoped out a spot in the lobby for the Alarie statue between the Kazmaier and Bradley monuments.

Littlefield and Alarie reached personal milestones in the Tigers’ 77-52 win at Columbia on March 6. Littlefield’s 24 led all scorers and helped her join the 1,000-point club, the 26th Tiger to cross that threshold. A free throw in the final period vaulted Alarie into the career scoring lead in program history at 1,684. The No. 17 team in the nation headed to Ithaca to end the regular season the next afternoon.

Fittingly, the Tiger defense notched another single-digit quarter, its 19th in Ivy play and 31st overall, in the 69-50 win. Four Tigers reached double figures. Princeton closed its season on a 22-game winning streak, second only to South Carolina in Division I.

The Tigers returned to Princeton to prepare for the Ivy tourney in Cambridge the next week and for the Big Dance after that. Little did they realize that the greatest season in Tiger history was already over due to COVID-19.

Enduring strength after a successful transition

Carla Berube was truly an unqualified success in her first season at Jadwin. The culture of defense she brought to her team  was easily her most outstanding contribution. The fact that she was able to make an almost seamless transition from the Banghart era stands as a tribute to the abilities of both women. At the end of the season, Berube was named Ivy Coach of the Year. She was also honored as the ECAC Coach of the Year.

Alarie indeed rewrote much of the Tiger record book. As noted she became the all-time leading scorer in Tiger history, finishing with 1,706 points. In the middle of her junior year she became the career leader in blocked shots. She was a unanimous choice for Ivy League Player of the Year, her third such award. A four-time All-Ivy first-teamer, she was named Ivy Player of the Week 20 times, something no other Tiger player has achieved. She has 40 career double-doubles and holds league records for most points in a game (45) and field goals (20) against Columbia in 2019. In April, she was drafted by Dallas of the WNBA with the fifth pick of the first round. She is the third Tiger player to get a shot at the pro league in this decade.

Carlie Littlefield joined Alarie as an All-Ivy first-teamer. She will return for another season, leading a Tiger team expected to contend once again for the Ivy championship. Although Alarie is irreplaceable and Taylor Baur was a big part of the Tigers’ great season, the cupboard remains well-stocked. Berube is bringing in a nice recruiting class for next season. The big prize is Kaitlyn Chen, a 5’8” point guard from Flintridge Prep in California. Reportedly a target of the Cal Golden Bears and Courtney Banghart’s Tar Heels, Chen is ranked No. 66 overall in the nation by ESPN.  She will be joined by Chetanna Nweke, a 6’ 0” swing player from Stone Ridge High School in Maryland.

Where does this Tiger team rank in the history of the program? The other candidate for the top spot is the 2015 NCAA tourney team.  Penn coach Mike McLaughlin had the opportunity to coach against both. He gives the nod to the this year’s squad based on its defensive prowess, and that’s good enough for me.  While these kids might have been denied the chance to show what they could do in the Big Dance, they have left us a thousand memories and a legacy that will last as long as basketball is played at Princeton.

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