Soon after Princeton’s women’s basketball team sealed its spotless regular season, cruising to its 30th victory without stumbling once, its star point guard made a bold announcement.
Going undefeated wasn’t the only goal for these Tigers players. Winning a game in the NCAA tournament would mean real accomplishment.
“It’s No. 1 on my list,” senior Blake Dietrick told reporters. “Second is probably finishing my thesis.”
NCAA tournament, finishing a thesis. Not your typical one-two combination. Then again, Princeton isn’t your typical women’s basketball team.
Its undefeated season is a first in school history, and the Tigers also accomplished Dietrick’s goal, something done only one other time in the Ivy League: win an NCAA Tournament game.
The Tigers opened the tournament on Saturday with an 80-70 victory over No. 9-seeded Green Bay, which President Obama attended to cheer on his niece. Princeton freshman forward Leslie Robinson, the daughter of Michelle Obama’s brother Craig Robinson, did not appear in the game.
The No. 8-seeded Tigers (31-0) still face an uphill battle, facing No. 1 seed Maryland in a second-round game at 6:30 p.m. on Monday (ESPN2).
Those who watch the game most often have a fairly good feeling about this Princeton team. For starters, the Tigers’ RPI is ranked 12th in the country. They have won their games by an average of 24.9 points.
Curt Miller, the former coach at Indiana who notably guided mid-major Bowling Green to the Sweet Sixteen in 2007, said Princeton also has several key qualities of a team poised for postseason success: a veteran lineup, balanced scoring, few turnovers, a good transition defense and the ability to keep teams off the foul line.
The Tigers have four juniors and one senior among their starters, and four players who average double-digits, led by Dietrick’s 14.9 points per game.
They average 14.3 turnovers a game — at what Miller calls “the Mason-Dixon line” for acceptable turnovers per game. And they’ve held opponents to 33-percent shooting, and 14.3 free-throw attempts per game, compared to their own 49-percent shooting and 17.2 free-throw attempts per game.
“A lot of those intangibles that have been a part of successful mid-major teams, you can check those boxes off,” Miller said.
Still, there is the cautionary tale of Liberty. In 1998, the Big South school went 28-0 in the regular season … which earned it a 16 seed in the NCAA tournament and a first-round date with Tennessee. Predictably, that ended with the Lady Vols stomping the Flames as Tennessee went on to win the championship that year.
“They’re going to get the best seed they’ve ever gotten as a program,” Mechelle Voepel, women’s basketball writer for espnW.com, said before the tournament. “That’s going to help because they’re at least going to have a chance at winning that first-round game. Then, winning a game, who knows?”
More than one game, though? That’s when things get tricky. The last mid-major team to reach the Final Four was Missouri State in 2001.
“Going further than the Sweet Sixteen is really, really tough,” Voepel said.
Regardless of what happens in the tournament, Princeton’s 31-0 season has opened some eyes. Though Connecticut has had five undefeated regular seasons in the last 20 years, the list of other schools to do so is concise — in addition to UConn, just Baylor (2012), Tennessee (1998), Texas (1986), Louisiana Tech (1981), Delta State (1975) and Immaculata (1973) have finished unblemished.
“They’re a great story and it’s great for women’s basketball,” Miller said. “[Coach] Courtney [Banghart] deserves so much credit. They’ve had a bull’s eye on their back for the entire year, and to step up to the challenge every game is impressive — regardless of what conference you play in, it’s really hard to do.
“There’s a lot of people out there in the profession and out of the profession who are really rooting for Princeton to really make a run in the tournament.”