Princeton lone unbeaten team left in women's basketball
Princeton coach Courtney Banghart and her undefeated basketball team are embracing their historic run.
The 16th-ranked Tigers (21-0) are the last unbeaten squad in women's basketball after No. 1 South Carolina lost to Connecticut on Monday night.
''I know it sounds cliche, but this team believes it can be part of something really special,'' Banghart said. ''They are dialed in to contribute to that.''
It's already been a special season for Princeton. The team is off to the best start in school history, helping the Tigers achieve the highest ranking in the Top 25 for any Ivy League team. The only conference team that had a better start was the 1970-71 Penn men's basketball team, which won its first 28 games.
The Tigers are winning by an average of 26.6 points, but haven't had the easiest road to perfection. Before the Ivy League season began, they only played four home games. They also had their annual three-week break for exams in January. Princeton opened the season with a 16-point win at Pittsburgh and went to Michigan in December and won by 30.
''They are a really good team that doesn't beat themselves,'' said Hartford coach Jen Rizzotti, who lost to Princeton by 13 in December at the Fordham tournament. ''They could easily play with many of the Top 25 teams in the country.''
Rizzotti knows what it takes to play on an undefeated team, having led UConn to a 35-0 mark in 1995.
Princeton's run has been noticed by those outside of the women's basketball world, too. First lady Michelle Obama and her daughters cheered them on in late November in a game at American University. Obama, who graduated Princeton in 1985 and has a niece on the squad, spoke to the Tigers at the half of that game.
''It was very cool,'' Banghart said of the first lady's visit. ''We hope that if we do make it to the NCAA tournament, we might see the first family again if their schedule permits.''
With nine games left in their Ivy League season, Princeton is trying to become the 15th team to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated. Only eight have won the national championship.
While they don't take any team for granted, the Tigers have won their league contests by an average of 34.8 points. Princeton's success hasn't gone unnoticed at a university known more for its academics than sports teams.
''We had 2,000 fans Saturday night. There was a major buzz. It's awesome,'' Banghart said. ''In the staff meeting, people are totally into it. Coaches come to home games and to practices to see how we work.''
Next up is a trip to play Brown and Yale this weekend. The Bulldogs are currently in second place in the league at 5-1. The Ivy League, unlike other conferences, plays its games back-to-back on Friday and Saturday nights. That might be the only thing that could trip up Princeton.
While it would be great to finish the regular season undefeated and earn an automatic NCAA bid- the Ivy League has no postseason conference tournament - Banghart has bigger goals in mind. Her Tigers made the NCAA tournament four straight seasons from 2010-13, but lost in the first round each time.
''The most important thing is winning the Ivy title and getting to the tournament,'' she said. ''The second most important thing is winning in the NCAAs. If we're undefeated to get there, that just makes it extra special.''
Princeton was just outside the top 20 teams released by the NCAA women's basketball committee on Wednesday night. The biggest flaw is their strength of schedule.
''That is a significant issue with Princeton right now,'' committee chair Dru Hancock said. ''Their strength of schedule is far above 100. If they finish out and go undefeated, they'll get a high seed.''
Banghart hopes that it will be a seed high enough to give the Ivy League school a chance to host the opening two rounds. The Tigers were one of 40 schools that bid to host the first two rounds of the NCAAs.
''We definitely care about the opportunity to host as it would be a first for us and for an Ivy League school to play in your home gym is rare,'' she said. ''But we can't control the uncontrollables. We've been pretty good on the road, too, so if we have to play away, we'll be OK.''
Before Banghart and her team can worry about that, they have to close out the remaining nine league games.
For now they'll just enjoy the ride.
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