PRINCETON: Wheatley helps PU in sweep

Tiger hoops are still unbeaten

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   Alex Wheatley is paired up with a variety of players in the Princeton University women’s basketball practices that regularly challenge her in different ways.
   They don’t make things easy on the Tigers junior.
   ”Annie (Tarakchian) outrebounds me, Mariah (Smith) goes around me, Taylor (Williams) blocks me,” Wheatley said. “I think at practice every day it’s good. We’re a real competitive bunch, so I think practices are always a competitive environment and that’s the way we like it.”
   That environment does make things easier when she gets into Ivy games. Princeton returned to Jadwin Gym for the first time in nearly a month and further distanced themselves from the Ivy pack over the weekend.
   On Friday, they dismantled Ivy cellar dweller Columbia, 83-44, behind a balanced attack with Michelle Miller scoring 16 points, Wheatley adding 10 points, Smith scored nine points and Blake Dietrick and Williams had eight points apiece.
   Saturday, in a showdown of sorts between the top two teams in the Ivies, Princeton overcame a slow start offensively to hand second-place Cornell their second loss, 75-47. Wheatley was 7-for-8 from the floor to equal Miller for game-high honors with 14 points along with eight rebounds. Miller posted a double-double with 11 rebounds to go with her 14 points. Williams also had 10 points and four blocks. Wheatley added a pair of blocks as the Tigers muscled up Cornell. Princeton never trailed in either game.
   ”Cornell was post-dominant,” Wheatley said. “That was our scout. We figured we needed to take it to them in their post and if we can draw a double in the post, we can kick it out to our shooters and have the guards really run the game. I think it’s always good to start out trying to get inside shots and then kick it out to the guards. We have really, really good guards and I love playing with them.”
   With the win, the Tigers improved to 21-0. They are the only unbeaten women’s basketball team left at the Division I level, and that has helped them earn the No. 16 national ranking and some new respect and attention, including a recent ESPN story that predicted that they will finish the regular season undefeated.
   ”It’s really exciting,” Wheatley said. “It’s weird to think about the end of the season. Going undefeated for the season, we’re (thinking about) trying to win next Friday. We’re focusing on one game at a time, and focusing on us. It’s really cool how the basketball world has looked to us for a couple seconds, but we’re just trying to keep winning. It’s all about us.”
   It all starts every Monday in practice when the Tigers try to correct their mistakes from the weekend. As good as they could feel at 21-0 overall and 5-0 in the Ivies, Princeton knows there is plenty of basketball to go and they can’t sit pat.
   ”We focus Monday on ourselves,” said PU head coach Courtney Banghart. “We talk about what areas we need to focus on, and I thought we got better in those areas this weekend. Now we’ll look at other areas Monday and focus on them and try to get better.”
   Banghart has players with the perfect approach to that process. Wheatley is coming off a weekend with back-to-back double-digit scoring efforts and some solid defense inside, and though she was smiling when she talked about the Cornell game, inside she was thinking about what could have been better.
   ”I’m never actually happy, but I thought it was a good team effort,” she said. “I had some good plays. We’ll see what we work on Monday. It was a good team win.”
   The win Saturday was enjoyed by nearly 1,400 fans. It was a season-high attendance total for Princeton.
   ”This was great to have a crowd like this and a game like this,” Banghart said. “We wanted to play a good team and defend them well.”
   The Tigers limited Cornell to 35 percent shooting for the game and only one 3-pointer. Princeton on the other side shot 56 percent, though they struggled to score early. The Tigers held Cornell without a point for the first six minutes to establish an 8-0 lead and never got closer than five points the rest of the way.
   ”Being on our home floor and having the home advantage, we wanted to protect our house,” Wheatley said. “After a slow start, we started to get in a rhythm and we finally started to box out and that changed momentum.”
   Princeton will focus on playing well for the entire 40 minutes when they return to the road for games at Brown on Friday and at Yale on Saturday. The Tigers haven’t had much competition within the league yet, and the lopsided scores could mask Princeton’s mistakes, but they continue to assess how they can play better.
   ”Coach has made a point of saying it’s about how we play, not who we play,” Wheatley said. “So no matter who is on the other side of the court, it’s about us. Games like (Saturday), it was a win, but we’re going to go into practice and dissect it and get better on Monday. It is hard to see if you’re just looking at scores, but within ourselves, we think we know what we need to work on.”