COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) It’s not that Princeton coach Courtney Banghart was unimpressed to see President Barack Obama in the stands, just a few rows away.
It’s that Banghart was more concerned with making sure her Tigers – including Obama’s niece, a freshman forward – would stay unbeaten and win a women’s NCAA Tournament game for the first time.
After trailing at halftime with the First Fan in attendance Saturday, eighth-seeded Princeton came back to improve to 31-0, beating No. 9 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay 80-70 behind Michelle Miller’s 20 points, Annie Tarakchian’s 19, and a 49-22 rebounding edge.
”He was actually sitting right in front of my family, so I’d look back at my family, and I’d be like, `Oh, my God. It’s Barack.’ But it certainly wasn’t in my focus,” Banghart said.
”And that’s not belittling his importance. That will go down as a highlight, as well, and I’m hoping there’s a picture of me – and he’s somewhere in the background,” she continued. ”Someone got that, right?”
There was some question whether Ivy League champion Princeton deserved a better seeding, given that it was the only undefeated women’s team and was ranked 13th in the final AP poll. But the Tigers came in 0-4 in the NCAAs, all since 2010; indeed, Ivy League teams were 1-22 before Saturday.
”My NCAA Tournament record is atrocious,” Banghart said. ”But tonight, it’s not so atrocious.”
Coming now is by far the biggest challenge Princeton has faced all season: a game against No. 1 seed Maryland on the Terrapins’ home floor. Maryland advanced Saturday by beating 16th-seeded New Mexico State 75-57.
Against Green Bay (28-5), Princeton fell behind by three points late in the first half and was down 35-34 at halftime.
Princeton is not accustomed to losing and it’s not all that familiar with close calls, either, having won all but two of its games by at least 10 points.
As for Princeton’s mental state heading into the second half, guard Blake Dietrick said, ”We came out with an attitude of, `OK, we got our feet wet. We know we’re in this game. We know we can win this game. And we know we can play a lot better than we did in that first half.”’
And just like that, Princeton used a 15-3 run to lead 60-48 with about 9 minutes left on Alex Wheatley’s fastbreak layup.
Mehryn Kraker led Green Bay with 21 points, and Kaili Lukan added 17. But the Phoenix shot just 8 of 27 on 3-pointers, while Princeton went 9 of 16.
Obama’s niece, freshman forward Leslie Robinson, did not appear in the game.
The cheerer-in-chief arrived a few minutes before tipoff, taking a seat among orange-wearing Princeton fans not far off the court. Police cars dotted roads leading to the arena, and there was heavy security at entrances, including metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.
”I shook his hand. And I got a picture,” Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth said. ”Well, the President came. I’m going to let my guard down for a minute and be excited about that.”
During the second half, a brief chant of ”Four more years!” rose from some spectators, drawing a chuckle from Obama.
Just like when any player’s uncle shows up for a tournament game, right?
First lady Michelle Obama went to Princeton, as did her brother, Craig Robinson, who is Leslie’s father and sat next to the President on Saturday. Showing family favoritism, President Obama picked Princeton to make it to the Final Four in his women’s NCAA bracket.
BIGGER IS BETTER
Referring to Princeton’s rebounding advantage, Banghart said: ”We just hammered them on the glass.”
Tarakchian had 17 rebounds, Wheatley had 10.
”When I came on the court and looked at them, I just saw the size of `em,” Borseth said. ”And I knew that we were going to struggle trying to rebound.”
Princeton: The only other Ivy League team to win a women’s NCAA Tournament game was Harvard in 1998, when it became the only 16th seed to upset a No. 1 by beating Stanford.
Green Bay: Finished with only seven turnovers, but was outscored 21-8 at the foul line.
Princeton: Will face Maryland on Monday night. The Terrapins are on a 25-game winning streak.
Green Bay: Season over.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich