Princeton women’s basketball targets a return trip to the Big Dance

After a historic 2015-16 season that saw the Princeton women’s basketball team become the first Ivy League team to secure at at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, the team graduated four of its top rebounders, as well as 71 percent of its offense.  Despite those huge losses, the Tigers were still projected for second place in the preseason Ivy media poll.  With four new starters, including a first-year and a sophomore, as well as a schedule that had the squad facing 10 2017 postseason participants, the Orange and Black ended the year second in the conference’s regular season, runner-up in the Ivy Tournament and selected to the NIT Tournament.  With another challenging schedule on tap for 2017-18, Princeton aims to improve upon its various records (16-14 overall, 9-5 Ivy, 6-7 nonconference and 5-10 vs postseason teams) to secure a return ticket to March Madness.

The Tigers lose Vanessa Smith and Taylor Brown from last year’s team.  Smith averaged 7.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists, while Brown averaged 6.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 2.0 assists, and 1.4 steals.  With the graduation of the two senior guards, Princeton will now be led by sophomore forward Bella Alarie and senior forward Leslie Robinson.

While last year’s Ivy League had a large influx of exceptional first year players (Brown’s Justine Gaziano, Columbia’s Mike Smith, Harvard’s Bryce Aiken and Katie Benzan, Penn’s AJ Brodeur, Yale’s Miye Oni and Jordan Bruner come to mind), Alarie may have the been the best of them all, averaging 12.6 points (10th in Ivy League), 1.7 blocks (fourth), 8.0 rebounds (fifth), 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals a game.  She not only earned Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors and a first team All-Ivy selection, but started for USA Basketball in the team’s silver medal run in the recent U-19 World Cup.  Robinson, who averaged 1.5 points, 1.9 rebounds and 0.9 assists in 7.1 minutes a game in 2015-16, increased her totals to 10.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists in 26.6 minutes a year later.  For her breakout season, Robinson was named to the All-Ivy second team.

Princeton will also return three athletes who played major minutes last year, junior wing Sydney Johnson, senior guard Tia Weledji, and junior guard Gabrielle Rush.  Jordan averaged 4.1 and 3.8 rebounds a game.  Weledji, who played for Cameroon in this summer’s Afrobasket Tournament, averaged 5.8 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists a game.  Rush averaged 6.9 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists a game.

The Tigers will welcome a four-member first-year class to campus this fall, each a McDonald’s All-American nominee.  Abby Meyers is a four star 6’ 0” combo guard from Maryland, who was rated No. 54 in the Class of 2017 by ESPN HoopGurlz.  Sydney Boyer is a 6’ 1” forward from southern California, who chose Princeton over Yale, Davidson, and Arizona.  In her senior season, she averaged 16.7 points and 10.3 rebounds a game, while shooting 35 percent from three.  For her career she scored over 1,000 points and 800 rebounds.  Carlie Littlefield, a 5’ 11” guard from Iowa who was named Iowa Basketball Coaches’ Association Class 5A Player of the Year, had 1,393 points, 380 assists and 296 steals in her four years.  McKenna Haire, a 5’ 10” guard from North Carolina, finished her career with over 1,000 points and 500 rebounds.

In its nonconference schedule, the Tigers will face seven postseason teams from last year.  In the month of November, they will visit Seton Hall (Nov. 16) and Davidson (Nov. 25), while hosting NIT participants George Washington (Nov. 10), Georgia Tech (Nov. 19), and Villanova (Nov. 29).  The Yellow Jackets were NIT finalists, and the Wildcats, in addition to being NIT semifinalists, ended Princeton’s season in the tournament’s first round.  Following a home contest against Delaware (Dec. 2) and a visit to Lafayette, the Tigers will travel to Quinnipiac (Dec. 9), last year’s No. 1 College Insider mid-major program, MAAC champion and NCAA Sweet 16 member.

To close out December, Princeton will hit the road against Rutgers (Dec. 13) and Wagner (Dec. 17) before traveling to the University of Florida for the Gator Classic.  While in Gainesville, the Tigers will face St. Joseph’s and UT-Chattanooga on the 20th and 21st.  The Hawks made it to last year’s NIT, while the Mocs, the No. 14 College Insider mid-major team, earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament.  On the 30th, Princeton will face UMBC, which was defeated by Brown in the first round of last year’s Women’s Basketball Invitational.

On January 6, Princeton will open its Ivy League schedule with a visit to defending champion Penn, which owns a five-game winning streak against its main rival. On the 12th and 13th, the Tigers will host Columbia and Cornell. After a three-week break for finals, the Tigers resume play with a trip to Yale and Brown on February 2 and 3. The following weekend, Harvard and Dartmouth plan a visit to Jadwin Gym to finish the first half of league play.

The Tigers start the second round of conference action by hosting the Quakers on February 13.  Three nights later, the team will start a four-game, two-weekend road trip at Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth and Harvard.  On March 2 and 3, the Tigers will close out the regular season at home against Brown and Yale.

As one of the top Ivy and mid-major programs, expectations will again be high for Princeton in 2017-18. Headed by one of the country’s most successful coaches, anchored by one of the nation’s elite young players, and complimented by an experienced lineup, a ninth straight postseason appearance seems likely. If the Tigers can gain confidence and victories in their daunting nonconference schedule, they stand a good chance at dethroning the two-time defending champs in the regular season, as well as in the Ivy Tournament.

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