Monday, March 18, 2019

NCAA Bound, Again

The Princeton women's basketball team was up three with little more than two minutes to go in the Ivy League tournament championship game yesterday afternoon when Bella Alarie caught the ball in the paint and was swarmed.

She had two options. She could force up a shot, which she didn't do, or she could pass it out to the open Julia Cunningham outside the three-point line, which she did do.

Cunningham then drilled the three, Princeton was up six, and after a tense 38 minutes, the last two were party time for the Tigers.

Final score: Princeton 65, Penn 54. Princeton is back to the NCAA tournament, for the eighth time in the last 10 years, after never having been there prior to that. 

The bottom line is this: Whatever play you need Bella Alarie to make, she'll make.

The most complete Ivy League basketball player TigerBlog has ever seen, male or female, had her whole game on display yesterday afternoon at Yale, and the result is yet another NCAA tournament bid for the Princeton women. Alarie finished with 25 points, six rebounds, five blocks, three assists and a steal, which came while it was still a six-point game with 1:23 to go and essentially ended any chance that Penn had left.

It was 47-44 Penn at the end of the third quarter before Princeton outscored the Quakers 21-7 in the final 10 minutes and held Penn to just one basket in the quarter, none in the final 6:28.

Alarie's extraordinary talent was on display from start to finish, as she played all 40 minutes. Without her, Princeton would have been down by 15 or 20 after three quarters, instead of being down by three.

It's a lot of fun to watch her play, to see a player who can do everything without ever seeming to be forcing anything. In the final against Penn, with all of the points she scored, it was the decision to kick it to Cunningham, making it 58-52, that was the biggest moment in the game, the one that forced a Penn timeout and gave Princeton its first two-possession lead since the 6:26 mark of the second quarter.

For TigerBlog, the best Ivy League rivalry right now in any sport is Princeton-Penn women's basketball. For someone whose four-decade love of Ivy League athletics traces back to Princeton-Penn men's basketball, this is pretty special stuff.

The teams have combined to win the last 10 Ivy titles, and they finished as co-champs this year, which makes the Ivy title count Princeton 7, Penn 4 in those 10 years.

The teams have now met in all three Ivy tournament championship games, and they both got through Saturday's semifinals by hardly breaking a sweat. After splitting their regular season games this year, the teams met yesterday afternoon for the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The first three quarters were played pretty much exactly the way Penn wants to play, grinding it out, playing good defense, putting pressure on every possession. It was 31-25 Penn with a minute to go in the first half before Alarie scored, Grace Stone drew a charge and Gabrielle Rush hit a three at the buzzer, making it 31-30 at the break.

By then, Alarie had 17, Rush had nine and everyone else had four. Penn would build the lead to as much as seven in the third quarter before it got to be 47-44 heading to the fourth.

That's when Princeton turned up the defense and unleashed Carlie Littlefield, who scored all 13 of her points in the second half and who made a bunch of huge plays down the stretch. Littlefield, of course, is the kind of player whose stats are meaningless; with the game on the line, you're always fine with the ball in her hands, and yesterday is all the proof of that you need.

Cunningham was also huge, as Sydney Jordan was limited to 15 minutes by foul trouble. The freshman played 21 minutes and finished with five points, four rebounds, two assists and a steal, and of course the biggest shot of the game.

Rush was also tremendous, with 18 points. She hit four three-pointers, giving her 87 for the year, two off Sandi Bittler-Leland's single-season record that has stood for 29 years.

It was a great team effort for Princeton, led by Alarie, obviously, but not just the Bella show.

And, of course, led by Courtney Banghart. She's the common denominator of those eight NCAA bids, having turned her roster over again and again and still putting out the best teams in the league.

She guided her team through a difficult start to the year, when Alarie was out with a broken hand for nine games, and then once again after the excruciating month of January, when Princeton lost its Ivy opener at Penn and then didn't play for four more weeks, and lastly when the team was 2-2 and Penn was 4-0 after a loss at Yale in early February.

Since then? The Tigers haven't lost. They won their last 10 in the regular season, and now they've won the league tournament again.

The NCAA tournament selections will be announced tonight at 7. Princeton, again, knows that it is in.

Where will the Tigers go? Who is the opponent? Those are the spoils for the victors this time of year in college basketball.

Princeton has earned it. No championships are easy. This one was harder than most.

Fortunately for the Tigers, they have a true team who brought a true team effort to the Ivy final yesterday - led, of course, by a true superstar.


Mike Knorr said...

For people who like numbers, a couple of amazing stats for this year's team. Bella Alarie became the second Tiger to reach the 500 point plateau and needs 27 more points to tie Megan Cowher's record of 532 in a season. Absolutely astounding considering she missed the first nine games. In addition, Carlie Littlefield reached the 400 point mark and if Gabrielle Rush scores 11 more points, she too will get to 400 for the season. Incredible to have three players achieve that in the same season when only Niveen Rasheed and Blake Dietrich have score 400 or more under Courtney Banghart. Rush also needs to make one free throw to qualify as the career percentage leader. Not to mention three more threes.

What a fun team to watch.

Steven J. Feldman '68 said...

Hopefully, everybody will get to read the very nice, long article by Howard Megdal about Bella that was in The New York Times sports section yesterday.