When Annie Tarakchian fields a phone call from SLAM on a Thursday afternoon, she’s on a bus with her team, headed to Harvard. She asks for a few moments, so she can move toward a seat near the back, away from the din. This bunch of Tigers can’t help making noise, she says with a chuckle. There. A bit of space. Now she can hear better.
“If it’s a good time for you to talk, it’s a good time for me,” she says.
Tarakchian. The Swiss-army knife of a 6-0 forward averaging just shy of a double-double for the Princeton women’s basketball team, which is 19-0 and off to the best start in Ivy League women’s basketball history. As of Monday, ranked 18th in the country—the highest ever for an Ivy. One of two remaining unbeatens in the women’s game this season.
And this particular road trip, the Harvard/Dartmouth swing. It’s a fitting time for Tarakchian, a junior, to look back.
But let’s start with an email. Benjamin Badua, sports information director for this Princeton team, contacts Tigers coach Courtney Banghart about a SLAM Magazine writer’s interest in profiling Tarakchian.
“I’m the biggest ANNIE fan on the planet,” Banghart writes.
When she speaks with SLAM, Banghart is in her car. It’s Wednesday night, and she’s on the way home from a team dinner. She begins with a few descriptions: Tarakchian is critical to Princeton’s success. You could call her the heartbeat of this team, on and off the court. If you need a three, a rebound, or a charge—she took three charges in practice yesterday!!—Tarakchian will provide it. The kid would play every minute of every day, if she could. Just loves the game.
Then, we get to brass tacks. The bus story. The reason behind this kid’s renaissance. “She’ll probably tell you about it,” Banghart says, stifling a chuckle, “so I’ll tell my version first.” Of course she did, Tarakchian will say later, laughing as well.
It’s Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, Princeton practice ahead of last season’s Dartmouth/Harvard trip. Back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday: the root canal-type deal known as Ivy League conference play. At this point, Tarakchian was a sparsely-used sophomore trying to find her place in the team.
Banghart begins. “It’s so hard to get mad at Annie. She’s just so loveable. But she was so passive. She’d get the ball on offense, put it over her head, and look for the next pass without even thinking of scoring.”
It kept happening. How can I get through to her, Banghart wondered. She decided to go for broke. The next time Tarakchian fired a pass without so much as a glance at the basket, Banghart stopped practice and yelled.
If the next time you catch that ball, you put it over your head, I don’t want you on the bus!
“I remember that perfectly,” says Amanda Berntsen, a Tigers junior guard. “Annie is such a great offensive player, but she wasn’t looking to score. She was just looking to pass, and Coach knew what she could do and she got tired of seeing her not do it. When she said that, ‘Don’t get on the bus,’ Annie kind of looked at her and said, OK.”
Berntsen remembers the sense of something triggering. “Annie scored on the next three possessions of practice. It just foreshadowed what was to come,” says Berntsen.
Says Michelle Miller, another Princeton junior, “Coach is very honest, very candid with you. That helps develop a good relationship. Sometimes we can over-think things, so she challenges you to just play. You’ve done it your whole life, so you know you can get back to that.”
Tarakchian got on the bus, and produced 14 points and seven rebounds in a resounding win over Dartmouth. She followed with 15 points in another dub over Harvard the following night. For her efforts, she was named Ivy League Player of the Week. Banghart sent a jocular tweet: she was happy a certain player had gotten on the bus. Tigers past and present responded with an emphatic YES.
In the last nine games of ’13-14, that fateful weekend included, Tarakchian averaged 11.4 points and 6.8 rebounds. She was named a starter for the final two contests, and posted double-doubles in each.
Asked about that moment of that practice, Tarakchian responds simply. “I needed that.”
“I needed (Banghart) to rip me a little bit and tell me to play the way I know how. I knocked away the cobwebs, and I just went for it. It was so refreshing to be able to help my team on the court.”
Banghart had endured the doubters, the incessant appraisals of, I just don’t see it with that kid. But she knew that there was supreme talent on hand; she just hadn’t quite figured out how to get it.
“It was a surprise to so many,” Banghart says of Tarakchian’s late-season surge. “But it was exactly what I was expecting all along. I’d figured out how to help her understand what her piece to our puzzle was.”
This is a coach who channels Socrates in her instructional method: drawing out the best in her players. One who believes that you haven’t taught it until they’ve learned it. That leaders are judged upon the success of the people that they lead.
She has brought endless reserves of positivity and empathy to Princeton. If a player is struggling, the team not living up to its goals, Banghart works painstakingly to find the right remedy.
“She is absolutely the most positive influence I have ever been around,” Tarakchian says of her coach. “The enthusiasm she brings to this team drives us all. She understands what she needs to do to bring out the best in each of us. I don’t know how she does it, but she’s able to do it because she genuinely wants the best for us.”
Tarakchian is still cresting the wave of momentum. This past summer, she spent 10 weeks in Greece for an internship. In between the work, and from the moment she returned Stateside, she was chipping away at her game. This season, she’s been sensational. Two more conference player of the week awards. MVP of the Cancun Challenge, in which she averaged a double-double through three games over Thanksgiving weekend. She’s currently posting 10.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals while hitting 44 percent from the field and 49 percent from three.
This past weekend, Princeton shrugged off a 20-day layoff (players had been taking first semester final exams) and, with Tarakachian back where it kind of all began, decimated Harvard by 50. The following night, she finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, a block and a steal in an 83-65 win at Dartmouth.
When a team starts a season 19-0, winning with such aplomb, there are a multitude of reasons behind the success. For example, top-15 national rankings in an ever-lengthening list of team statistical categories, on both sides of the ball.
And yet, the emergence of Tarakchian might just be the most telling and stirring, because she encapsulates everything Banghart wanted this program to be.
Banghart had tracked Tarakchian throughout her time at Chaminade (CA) High, a high-powered program with an annual stake in the state championship field. She noticed colleges passing over this kid, who seemed saddled with the ‘tweener’ label. Not quite quick enough for a guard; not quite tall or strong enough to bang in the post.
But Banghart was a New Hampshire kid well-versed in her region’s sporting lore. When others saw slow, can’t really jump, Banghart saw … Bird. Like Larry Legend, Tarakchian didn’t have a killer first step. But she could play multiple positions, and she found ways to impact the game from each of them. There was passion and so much skill.
“It wasn’t so much, ‘Wow, I found this kid no one else saw,’ but people were caught up on what she didn’t have,” says Banghart. “We’ve gotten blue chip kids here at Princeton, we’ve gotten dynamic athletes, but when you’re setting out a team, you don’t need five kids who do the same thing. You need different skill sets. With Annie, the kid had game, and that’s what we recruited.”
True to her SoCal roots, Tarakchian patterned her game after a modern-day star for the Celtics’ age-old nemesis. “I was a really big Lakers fan growing up,” she says. “We’d watch games, I’d have my oversized Kobe jersey on, and I’d watch what he did and go outside and try to do it too.”
Her dad and older brother would join in games. Pops stood 6-3, big bro played football. “So, I wouldn’t want to go in the post,” Tarakchian says, laughing. “I got my shot, and my range, from that.”
Neighbors would complain when the clock struck 10 or 11 at night, and there’d be Annie, hoisting jumpers, that doggone ball always bouncing. Betterment is often set to such a soundtrack.
Banghart compiled four commitments for the 2012 recruiting class, but she kept after Tarakchian. She decided to have all five players come on the same official visit to Princeton. When they arrived, Banghart pulled the four commits aside and told them, Let’s get Annie to come here.
Tarakchian remembers meeting that quartet, how each brought a different personality and type of game to the table. Miller, the elite scorer; Berntsen, the feisty, fast, do-it-all guard; the top-level posts in Alex Wheatley and Taylor Williams.
A self-professed “slow decision-maker”, Tarakchian credits Banghart with helping guide her through the process. She never felt pressed for a commitment.
When Banghart met with the five recruits in her office, she set forth a challenge. The ’09 Princeton recruiting class, which included Niveen Rasheed, Lauren Polansky, Kate Miller and Megan Bowen, was at that point readying a charge toward a third straight Ivy League title and NCAA tournament berth. They’d make it four for four before they were through.
With the ’12 recruits, Banghart said, Let’s get to the Sweet 16. “I knew they had the pieces, and I was going to hold them to that,” Banghart says.
Berntsen felt inspired. She wanted Tarakchian to be a part of this journey. “The day before we left, I sat down with Annie. I told her how great it would be to have her get to Princeton, how great a time we’d have. I wanted her to be my teammate; I wanted her to be my close friend.”
Tarakchian: “I didn’t need much convincing. It was such a great weekend, and I thank my 17-year-old self for making the decision.” Before November of her senior year, Tarakchian was on board.
Banghart thinks for several beats before assessing Tarakchian’s impact since arriving on campus. “I would call Annie the greatest at life,” she says. “She’s on the student-athlete council, the wellness committee, club boards. She has her hands all over this place, and she’s one of the most loved people on campus. She’s just so loved. She’s so nice, and she cares about everything and everyone. She’s the true Princeton model.”
And the kicker, hearkening back to that initial revelation: “Every single NBA owner wishes they would’ve had Bird,” says Banghart. “That’s kind of how it is with Annie.”
Tarakchian can’t get enough of the energy emitted from this place, the awesome people you meet each day. She feeds off all of it. Her freshman season, she spearheaded a music video re-creation of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You. Her four classmates starred alongside her. Banghart remembers Tarakchian and Co. asking if they could show a little video after film one day. Please let it be appropriate, Banghart thought. It brought the house down.
“I’m definitely more quiet, so I let Annie take the lead on that,” Miller says, laughing. “But it was a lot of fun. Annie brings people together really well, and that video was a great example of that.”
You can tell a lot about a person based upon the way she plays. That’s one of Banghart’s favorite lessons for her team. Tigers senior Blake Dietrick is a warrior, one of the fiercest competitors Banghart’s ever seen. She’ll succeed because she will compete through life. “And Annie, she lives how she plays,” says Banghart. “She is selfless, she is cohesive. She makes everyone better, and she’ll keep doing that the rest of her life.”
When Shirley Tilghman stepped down as the president of Princeton in 2013, a party was thrown in her honor.Shirleypalooza. During the course of the festivities, Tilghman was asked to name her two favorite things at Princeton. Her first answer was the arts. The second?
You can sense the smile as Banghart recounts this over the phone. Tilghman had asked if she could be the Tigers’ academic-athletic faculty fellow. To which Banghart responded, ‘Oh please.’ As if the school president even had to ask.
Still, Banghart was curious. She asked her friend what exactly drew her to the post. The answer she received floored her.
The way your women carry themselves. The glue-like nature of this team is inspiring.
Banghart charges each player with taking care of a teammate. If one isn’t doing well, a buddy is there in an instant. Many programs profess to be without cliques. That word doesn’t exist in Princeton’s lexicon.
Tarakchian and Williams are the only two players who room together, and that’s part of the point. “You don’t need to be the same, or do the same things; closeness is about how you treat each other, how you trust each other. And this team is genuinely close,” says Banghart.
Says Tarakchian, “When something happens to someone on the team, you want to be the first person to know. You want to be the first person to congratulate or console. We share everything, every moment, and its something we’re known for on campus. We’re kind of obsessed with each other. I love these girls.”
“It’s really rare, and it’s special,” says Berntsen. “Everyone is here to win. No one is just looking out for herself. I’m thankful every day for my teammates.”
“That’s meant more to me than anything, that they are respected and liked and cared about,” says Banghart. “We have football players at our games, dancing around. There is this campus-wide affinity for our women’s team, and they’ve earned it.”
Miller remembers looking at the stands during a break in the Ivy League opener against Penn, on Jan. 10. Whoa, she thought, this is one of the best crowds we’ve ever had. Several football players, dressed in crab suits, kept trying to distract the Quakers as they shot free throws. Miller couldn’t help but chuckle.
The juniors still remember that challenge, set forth on their official visit. Getting to the Sweet 16. Well … Miller says, when she’s asked. Right now, the Tigers are focused on getting through this Ivy League season, one game at a time. After all, hopes of a fifth straight conference title and NCAA tournament appearance were dashed with a loss on the final day of last season. They do not want that to happen again.
“We’re aware that if we keep playing well and keep winning, we can get a decent seed that will set us up to win a game in the tournament,” Miller says. “Obviously, everyone would love to do it. It would be the first NCAA tournament win for the program.”
Says Berntsen, “We saw how badly Niveen (Rasheed’s) class wanted to win that first-round game. It’s motivated us.”
Motivation is the key word. The Tigers have been one with it since summer. That’s when they laid the groundwork for this season, re-committing to the stifling defense inherent in top teams, getting the conditioning that allows them to play with such pace.
Tarakchian isn’t done improving, and that’s pretty incredible. She’s got more to give to this program. To this place.
“She is the type of girl that knows everybody on campus,” says Berntsen. “Professors, people in the dining hall, maintenance workers. She makes you feel happier. She is this team’s heartbeat, she brings everyone together. I know she’ll always have my back.”
Then, the kicker.
“It’s like Coach said. She’s just great at life.”