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Women's basketball hosts Brown and Yale, in breast cancer awareness game

Women’s basketball will host Yale and Brown on Friday and Saturday nights at Jadwin Gymnasium. Princeton (13-6 overall, 4-1 Ivy League) is 61st in the RPI ratings and sits in a tie for second in the Ivy League, trailing Harvard by half a game. The Tigers suffered their lone conference loss to the Crimson in their first game back from finals break, but have since won three straight by an average of 22.3 points. Yale (10-10, 4-2) is coming off a heartbreaking one-point loss to Harvard in New Haven and occupies fourth in the league table. Brown (8-12, 2-4) has won two of its last three, albeit against conference doormats Dartmouth and Columbia.

This year’s Princeton team has a different makeup and style than any of the league winning teams from the last four years. The Tigers returned only senior forward Kristen Helmstetter from last year’s starting five. With several players in new roles, the team struggled to find its rhythm early on, going 3-4 in the first three weeks and allowing 75 points per game. The 16-point win at Navy, ranked directly behind Princeton in RPI, was a huge turning point as it started a five-game winning streak and the current 10-2 run. The Tigers played their finest game of the season on Jan. 11, crushing Penn, the only Ivy team to beat Harvard, by a staggering 31 points at the Palestra.

“This year’s team is inexperienced in terms of minutes played … They’re fun to coach, since everyone’s role is different and they all want to get better,” coach Courtney Banghart said. “We’re better on offense this year and beginning to find accountability on defense. Early on we didn’t have that accountability, but now we’re playing better across the board.”

The defense has tightened up since allowing 110 points to Oregon, allowing 57.75 per game over the last 12 contests. In conference play, the team has allowed a league-best 32.4 percent of field goal attempts, including just 26.5 percent from beyond the arc. Princeton’s rebounding margin is plus-10, well above any other Ivy League team and good for 17th in the country. The offense has lit up the scoreboard throughout the season, averaging 73.8 points per game, above the program record of 72.0 set two years ago. Not surprisingly, this is also the best shooting team Princeton’s ever seen, hitting 47.2 percent of its shots and ranking eighth in the country. The team shares the ball very well, averaging 16.5 assists per game, 32nd best in Division I. If there has been one area the Tigers have struggled in, it has been in turnover differential. They’ve coughed the ball up 305 times on the season, while forcing only 257 turnovers on defense.

Junior guard Blake Dietrick has taken her game to a whole new level this season after coming off the bench last year. She has drawn comparisons to senior guard T.J. Bray of the men’s team for her lights-out shooting and versatility. She averages 14.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, marks good for fifth, 18th and fifth best in the league, respectively. She shoots 50.2 percent from the field, including 44.3 percent from downtown, the 17th best rate in Division I.

“Blake is having a great year,” Banghart said. “She came in as a good player, but took some time adjusting to the college game. She was sitting behind some talented players.”

Helmstetter, the captain, is the lone senior in the rotation and is another jack of all trades. She is tied for second on the team with sophomore guard Michelle Miller at 11 points per game and leads the team at 6.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. Princeton also features two more key players who make more baskets than they miss. Sophomore forwards Taylor Williams and Alex Wheatley shoot 61.2 percent and 54.4 percent, respectively, entirely from inside the arc.

Brown has not had much team success this year, ranking 298th in RPI and beating just one team with a winning record. They average 66 points per game, while allowing 71 to conference opponents. They allow 46.2 percent shooting and suffer an eight rebound deficit per game. They take exactly a third of their shots from three, the highest rate in the league, and shoot a respectable 36.2 percent from there. They lead the league with 9.3 steals per game and also with a scintillating 81.7 free throw percentage. What makes this Brown team interesting is its individual firepower. The Bears have the best duo in the league, with two of the top seven scorers, including senior guard Lauren Clarke, the leader at 16.9 points per game. Junior guard Sophie Bikofsky leads the nation, making 51.1 percent of her three-pointers, and two other Bears also shoot better than 40 percent from behind the arc.

The matchup against Yale serves as Princeton’s annual breast cancer awareness game. Marketed as “Princeton Plays Pink,” the team will wear pink socks and shoelaces, and fans will gain free entry for wearing a pink shirt. Yale’s Ivy League record and statistics are misleading, as they have played five of their six games against the bottom half of the league. The Bulldogs rank 223rd in RPI and have not beaten a team inside the top 200. They average 67.2 points per game and allow 64.4. They narrowly out-rebound their opponents and force 3.1 more turnovers than they commit, but allow an appalling 38.1 three-point percentage, fifth worst in Division I. Yale is led by junior guard Sarah Halejian, who takes more shots per game than anyone else in the league despite playing fewer minutes than anyone else in the top six. She does rank third in scoring at 15.6 points per game, but shoots a less than average 38 percent from the field, 29.6 percent from three and 64.5 percent from the line. Halejian is also top five in assists and steals per game.

“Brown has three starters shooting over 40 percent from three, so we’ll need to defend the arc. Yale prefers to win in one-on-one situations,” Banghart said. “It doesn’t get much more different than these two teams, but that’s the nature of the Ivy League. To win, you’ve got to beat all sorts of teams.”

Looking beyond this weekend, Princeton will head into a must-win matchup at Harvard on Feb. 22. While it is conceivable that the Tigers could merit an at-large tournament selection, the goal is obviously to earn the program’s fifth straight league title and win its first ever NCAA tournament game.

“We can’t worry about getting to the tournament. We take things one game at a time; every opponent looks the same to us,” Banghart remarked. “With that said, winning in the tournament is its own challenge. We need a good matchup because you can’t sneak up on anyone when there are 64 good teams participating.”

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