On to the Ivies for PU women

Cowher looks for big encore to standout rookie season

By: Justin Feil
   Meagan Cowher played well enough last winter to win the Ivy League Rookie of the Year.
   But something was missing, and it wasn’t just the Ivy League championship. It was six games she had no chance to compete in. Cowher was named the top freshman in the conference despite playing in just eight of the Princeton University women’s basketball team’s 14 games. Cowher starts her encore campaign when the Tigers travel to Penn for a 7 p.m. tip-off Saturday.
   "I didn’t play in a lot of Ivy games last year," said the Tigers forward. "I’m really excited to finally get out there and play. I feel like I missed out and I was robbed a little my freshman year. I’m definitely excited to get out there and play these Ivy teams."
   A healthy Cowher is only one reason that the Tigers are similarly excited to get the conference schedule underway. Princeton is off to its best start in 10 years after topping Lafayette, 73-47, Tuesday at Jadwin Gym in a final tune-up.
   "I think we just came into this game with not so much of a game plan but just knowing that we had to finish out our regular season before the Ivy season strong," said Cowher, who led all scorers with 18 points to go with six rebounds and a pair of assists. "You want to put a solid effort out there on a tape a lot of teams will see, kind of make a statement and do what we do well. I think we did that for the majority of the game so I’m pleased.
   "Now this month we’re 7-2. We’re playing pretty good basketball. It’s what we wanted."
   The Tigers were sharp in jumping out to a 45-28 halftime lead behind Cowher’s 12 points and five rebounds. Princeton stretched the lead to 22 points in the second half before a 9-0 Lafayette run cut that lead to 56-43 with 10:53 left. The Tigers pushed the lead back up over 20 points on a pair of free throws by Cowher.
   "In the first half, offensively we shot the ball well," said PU head coach Richard Barron, whose team is 9-4. "In the second half, I thought their comeback was a function of a change of the pace of the game and we turned the ball over 10 times in the half. That’s too many. You have to value possessions. It’s not just one position. It’s one here, one there. I think that was how they made their run.
   "Our offensive efficiency is critical to us doing well. I don’t think teams will run away with a game with our defense and rebounding. But if we’re just turning around and not building leads we’re certainly not shutting people down so they can’t score, so offensive efficiency is critical."
   Princeton forced 28 Lafayette turnovers to remain in control throughout the contest. The Tigers continue to play with a confidence that is building with every win. The Tigers had an identical 9-4 record in the 1995-1996 season in which they finished second in the Ivy League race. Princeton was 5-9 in the league last year, tied for fifth in the league, but the best start in a decade has helped lift hopes for this season.
   "I think there’s just a confidence that our seniors say hasn’t been here since they’ve been here," Cowher noted. "Instead of going into every game just hoping to get out with a win, there’s confidence that we are going to win. I think we’re a pretty close team and a confident team going in."
   Princeton got a boost Tuesday from the play of Whitney Downs, who made her first career start in place of the injured Jessica Berry. Berry, the freshman point guard, may not be available the first two Ivy weekends.
   "Injuries have hurt us in the past seasons," Barron said. "Staying healthy is critical. I think that there’s enough there (without Berry) that we can continue to do well, but the margin for error is certainly less. I was pleased with the way we played (Tuesday). I thought there were a lot of good things."
   Cowher is one good thing that has been solid throughout the season. After last season, she was added to the USA Basketball Trials which allowed her to play against some of the top players in the country. From there, she toured Scandinavia with the Princeton women’s team before opening her sophomore season right where she left off last year when she averaged 11.1 points per game. She has averaged 13.5 points per game, just behind team leader and 1,000-point scorer Becky Brown, who averages 14.5 points per game.
   "There are so many (good players), it’s hard to single any one out," Barron said. "You look at our scoring and it’s pretty balanced. We have a lot of kids averaging between eight and 14 points. They don’t just score their averages. They’re all capable of big games."
   The Tigers don’t mind who does the scoring. They’re focused on earning wins with 14 Ivy games remaining on their 2005-2006 schedule. After their start, they feel they have the pieces in place to make a run at the title.
   "Last season, it kind of took us a while to get into the rhythm and kind of find our game," Cowher said. "This season we’ve done what we knew we were capable of from the beginning. We know what we need to do to win games. We can focus on ourselves, not so much trying to adjust to our opponent. We’re a close team. We’re ready to start the Ivy season. Our four seniors, it’s their last chance to give it a run."
   Those seniors are critical because of their experience, particularly with the start to the Ivy season being away from home. Princeton fans will have to wait a while — more than a full month to be exact — to see the Tigers in action at Jadwin again. Princeton plays its first five games on the road, and won’t host an Ivy foe until Feb. 10 when Harvard visits.
   "It’s tough, but I think we can go out there and win," Cowher said. "We know the challenge. It also means we end our year at home so there’s a positive and negative. We’re excited to get out there on the road and get this started."