PRINCETON: PU hoop teams set to open season

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giving the team the state Prep A championship to go along with its Mid-Atlantic Prep League title.

By Bob Nuse, Sports Editor
Mitch Henderson and Courtney Banghart both know what it is like to run the table in the Ivy League.
Henderson coached the Princeton University men’s basketball team to a 14-0 record in the league a year ago, while Banghart has guided the school’s women’s program to a perfect record in the league three times in her 10 seasons as head coach.
Whether or not either Tiger team is capable of going through their league season unblemished this year is still to be determined. But both programs come into the year with high hopes and should be in the mix for a league title.
“In terms of the strength, I think we’re a little bit further ahead than we were a year ago defensively, and then the schedule is so challenging, we really challenged ourselves, put ourselves out there in terms of, I think, with this group, you can do it,” said Henderson, whose team won the Ivy League Tournament and finished 23-7 a year ago. “We’ll find out really quickly if we’re as far ahead as we think we are.”
The Tigers certainly suffered with the graduation of Spencer Weisz, Steven Cook and Pete Miller, but there is plenty of talent returning from the team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Notre Dame, 60-58, in the opening round.
Amir Bell, Myles Stephens and Devon Cannady are a solid foundation from which this year’s team will build. Cannady, who averaged 13.2 points per game a year ago, is the leading returning scorer, while Bell gives the Tigers an experienced point guard. Stephens is a do everything player who is certainly one of the top defenders in the league.
“I think Myles is able to guard other teams’ best players and that gives you an opportunity to be in any game because everybody’s got really good players,” said Henderson, whose team will open the season on Sunday at Butler. “And then the other two guys (Cannady and Bell) have so much experience on the defensive end. Our goals are where they’ve always been. We’ve got to defend and make sure we’re making each other better on each possession, and I’m encouraged. I really like what we’re seeing.”
The Tigers’ non-league schedule is as tough as it has ever been. They will play  Brigham Young on Nov. 15 in their home opener. The slate also includes games with St. Joseph’s, Monmouth, Miami and Southern Cal, as well as a trip to play in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
“We wanted to be challenged,” Henderson said. “Last year we played a difficult schedule and this is even more difficult. I think it’s one of the most difficult schedules we’ve played in over 20 years. Non-conference, we’re on the road in some really difficult places to play. But, it’ll come down to the same things that it always comes down to. You’ve got to take care of the ball, especially on the road. We lost a really difficult game at BYU to open up last year, so we’re happy to have them back here.
“You’ve got to make shots when you’re open, and get really good shots. We’ve talked about this a lot. This is a goal of ours, is to use, obviously, the non-conference season as an opportunity to get better do prepare us for the league, but this group has bigger goals in mind, which I really like.”
The Princeton women return the top two scorers in sophomore Bella Alarie and senior Leslie Robinson. The graduation losses of Vanessa Smith, Taylor Brown and Jackie Reyneke will be felt on the court, but the Tigers to have a strong nucleus to build on after finishing 16-14 and reaching the Ivy League Tournament final a year ago.
“I think this program has always incredible chemistry off the court,” said Banghart, whose team will open the season tonight at home against George Washington. “It’s been a team top-to-bottom and side-to-side that’s really prided itself on being one. Last year, we weren’t quite as cohesive in terms of how we played the game together on either end.
“This particular group has transferred that cohesion and collection to the court. They share the ball, they’re skilled off the dribble, they’re skilled off the catch-and-shoot. We can shoot the ball better, we’re faster and defensively, they’re light years better than they were. I give them a lot of credit, they came with a new sense of purpose.”
Princeton has not had a losing season since 2008, which was Banghart’s first as head coach. But the 16-14 overall record was the team’s worst since finishing 14-14 in 2009.
“Last year didn’t sit well with anybody, so we came in with a new sense of purpose,” Banghart said. “Now it’s the senior classes’ team, so the team is playing to the personality of its leaders and Leslie is one of them for sure.”
Players like Sydney Jordan and Tia Weledji should play bigger roles this year. And there are four freshmen – Abbey Myers, Carlie Littlefield, Sydney Boyer and McKenna Haire – who have been added to the mix and hope to make a contribution.
Robinson, Weledjie and Kenya Holland are the seniors that Banghart has seen great leadership from leading up to the start of the season.
“What a difference a year makes,” said Banghart, whose team lost to Villanova in the opening round of the WNIT a year ago. “We have a lot of improved pieces and a lot of young talent that will contribute immediately to what we’re about. I give a lot of credit to our senior class. The energy with this group is palpable and consistent. It’s been a really fun team to coach. They’re focused and committed to getting better. It sounds cliché’, but it’s real. This team is for real and I’m looking forward to get after it against someone else.”