Senior sparkles as Tigers roll past Quakers
By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
Jessica Berry contributed eight points and a still career-high eight assists in her Ivy League debut as a freshman against the University of Pennsylvania.
The Princeton University senior hasn’t shown any signs of letting up on the Tigers’ travel partner ever since then.
”I just love playing against Penn,” Berry said. “It’s always our first Ivy game of the season and our last. It has special significance either way. We were excited to get the Ivy season started.”
And what a start it was Saturday night at Jadwin Gym. Princeton bolted out to an 18-3 run with Berry scoring five of her seven points in the stretch. She started and played 31 minutes for the Tigers, was perfect shooting from the floor, and helped control Penn in a 64-49 win. It was the sixth win in seven meetings with Penn.
”I think that’s the most collectively awesome we’ve played as a group,” Berry said. “We came out and right from the start we were really fired up. Every player showed she was excited to be on the court.
”We had a confidence about us at the beginning of the game that was expected before but hadn’t come to fruition yet.”
Princeton improved to 6-9 overall. They had snapped a five-game losing streak with a win over Rider last Tuesday, then overwhelmed the Quakers on Saturday. Princeton had a 36-17 halftime lead. In the second half, the lead never dipped below 15.
”We really learned our lesson at Lafayette,” Berry said. “We had a sizeable lead and they came back and we ended up losing that game by two. Being up at halftime by 19, remembering that lesson was important for us. I think our coaching staff views the non-conference schedule as preparation for the Ivy League.”
Freshman Lauren Edwards had 16 points to lead the Tigers, while her classmate Laura Johnson had a career-high 12 points. The Tigers are off for exams until Jan. 30, when they host Dartmouth to resume Ivy play. Starting off 1-0 in the league is big for their confidence.
”Many of us have already watched the game on-line,” Berry said. “We’ll think about it. It’s all we have to think about it now. We’ll continue to gain confidence from it. It’s also a chance to get prepared. The Ivy weekends come at you really fast.”
Nothing prepares Berry better for the Ivy season than playing Penn. Some of her best performances have come against the Quakers. She had 11 points and five assists in her other meeting as a freshman when Princeton went on to share the Ivy League championship. As a sophomore, she averaged 10.5 points against Penn in two wins. As a junior, she twice scored 12 points, five points above her season average. While she didn’t score as many points in this year’s first meeting, winning was the most important thing she got out of Saturday.
”We put in so much work in the offseason,” Berry said. “All of us want to do exactly what our role is. That includes me too. I’m just excited to be a part of this team, whatever shape that takes on and off the court.
”The way Coach (Courtney) Banghart looks at it, we were all freshmen under her program last year. This year we have another year of experience and she has another year of being acquainted with us. It’s been helpful to spend all spring and fall with the team. I’ve benefited from it greatly.”
Berry missed the fall semester last season when she studied abroad. She returned and three games later was in the starting lineup against Penn. She has started 14 of 15 games this year for the Tigers. Her scoring is down from last season, but her shooting percentages are up — five percent on three-point goals and 16 percent from the free throw line.
”Shooting is so much about confidence,” Berry said. “We’ve all been playing since in second grade. It’s all about muscle memory and trusting yourself. I’ve gained confidence under these coaches, and every girl on this team is the same way, the more confidence you have, the more the ball goes in.”
The Tigers don’t have to make as many shots if they can play defense as they did against Penn. They held the Quakers without a field goal for almost nine minutes to open the game.
”We know we’re going to give that kind of effort,” Berry said. “That’s going to be a constant for us. That’s our identity. That’s something we’re all excited about.”
Even more exciting is the results the Tigers are starting to see. The freshmen have half a season of experience and the returning players are showing a better understanding of the expectations. They are happy to see the wins starting to come, especially to start the Ivy season.
”I think it’s important to us to have a winning record,” Berry said. “That’s definitely one of our goals. When we had five losses in a row, you don’t get used to it, but you start to forget that sense of urgency that you need to win.”
They had it Saturday, not surprisingly for Jessica Berry. After all, the Tigers were playing Penn.