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First-place Princeton hosts New York foes in final weekend of conference play

Crunch time has arrived for women’s basketball following last weekend’s loss at Brown. The defeat at the hands of the lowly Bears dropped Princeton (18-7 overall, 9-2 Ivy League) into a first place tie with Penn. The regular season ends against the Quakers (19-6, 9-2) next Tuesday, but the Tigers must first survive matchups against Cornell and Columbia in this weekend’s homestand.

“[The loss against Brown] doesn’t trouble me,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “We’re an enormously inexperienced team with a lot of firsts to go through. With young players, when one of them doesn’t play well, none of them do, and that’s what happened. It wasn’t overconfidence or a lack of preparation.”

The Big Red (14-12, 6-6) visits Jadwin Gymnasium Friday night, having lost 71-56 when they hosted the Tigers four weeks ago. Fourth-place Cornell sports an efficient offense that has them ranked No. 3 in scoring in conference play at 67 points per game. Its shooting is second only to Princeton at 43.3 percent, though that stat is propped up by the fact that they shoot fewer three-pointers than anyone else except Dartmouth. For the most part, its stats are what you’d expect from a .500 team – mid-pack in just about everything. The one area the Big Red genuinely excels in is teamwork, as it leads the league in assists per game at 16.2 and in the more telling metric of assists per field goals made at .68. This is an exceptionally good mark – high enough, in fact, to rank them fifth among NCAA Division 1 teams. But all the teamwork in the world cannot overcome mediocre defense and rebounding, and thus Cornell is ranked No. 198 out of Division 1’s 346 teams by Jeff Sagarin and his computer ratings. It is led by two good individuals, who seemingly lack the necessary supporting cast. Forwards Allyson DiMagno and Nia Marshall combine for 28.1 points per game in conference play, the best duo in the entire league. The slightly lower scoring Marshall sinks 51.6 percent of her field goal attempts, third best in the league, while DiMagno makes 50.6 percent. DiMagno leads the conference in free throw shooting at 88 percent and is second in rebounding with 9.4 boards per game.

“Cornell is experienced with three senior starters,” Banghart said. “They’ve got a lot of scripted actions that we’ve been preparing for.”

Saturday night’s opponent, Columbia (6-20, 3-9), has suffered through a long season without much success. The Lions have not beaten Princeton in the last 11 meetings, including an insanely lopsided 98-36 loss at Jadwin last year despite facing mostly the Tiger bench. There is not a single statistic in which they have outperformed their conference opponents: they score 60.2 points per game, while allowing 72.6. They shoot 38.7 percent, while allowing 46.2 percent. They pull down 3.7 fewer rebounds than their opponents and record fewer offensive assists per game than any other league team. Columbia has the unenviable distinction of leading the league in both turnovers and fouls committed. But Banghart is not taking any opponent likely at this point.

“Columbia has a new coach and they’ve been playing teams well. They’re going to play hard with nothing to lose. They’re different from Cornell in that they’re more athletic and less predictable.”

Amid the madness that is the Ivy League regular season, the Lions did manage to defeat Brown on the road. They also feature the best per-minute rebounder in the conference, forward Amara Mbionwu. She pulls in 6.1 rebounds in just 16 minutes of gametime and shoots 57 percent to boot. But she also averages more than three fouls per game, and thus is restricted to a supporting role.

Princeton will celebrate the four-year contribution of only two players on Saturday’s senior night, underscoring the inexperience that Banghart alluded to. Only captain and forward Kristen Helmstetter started on last year’s conference-best squad. The youthfulness was evident early on, as the team held a 3-4 record after three weeks. But the shaky start seemed like a distant memory when Princeton beat Harvard in Cambridge to seize first place in the league. The Brown loss was a startling wake up call that reminded everyone how variable and correlated the performances of young players can be. The upside can be equally astonishing, as the 31 point win at Penn’s Palestra demonstrated. Even undefeated Notre Dame could only beat the Quakers by 22. On the average, this team has still been very good. There is not a whole lot the Tigers do not do well: They are one of the best shooting teams in the country at 47.9 percent and out-rebound their opponents by 26 percent, best in the conference. Their scoring margin of +11.2 is 32nd in Division 1, despite having an above average strength of schedule. Junior forward Blake Dietrick has led Princeton in scoring with 14.5 points per game in conference, but has struggled shooting the ball recently, going 1-13 at Harvard and 4-19 against Brown. She ranks 22nd in the country in three point shooting, yet is 4-24 over the last three games. Helmstetter, meanwhile, has played the best three game stretch of her career. She has scored at least 17 in each contest, averaged nearly 60 percent shooting from everywhere on the court, and pulled in 21 total rebounds. Banghart emphasized that the team needs both its stars playing well, along with everyone else, in order to achieve its goals.

The Cornell game tips off at 7 pm Friday night, while the Columbia game starts at 6 pm Saturday. The latter game also serves as Princeton’s 15th annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day. Come hit up the bounce house and watch the Tigers as they try and keep their hopes alive for an unprecedented fifth straight outright Ivy League title.

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