Courtney Banghart graduated from Dartmouth in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and a reputation as one of the best shooters in college basketball.
She started for three seasons, and helped lead the Big Green to consecutive Ivy League titles. In two NCAA tournament games, she averaged 19.5 points. She finished with 273 three-pointers for her career, and made at least one in 58 consecutive contests.
After graduation, she served as the athletic director at Episcopal (VA) High, and coached girls varsity basketball and cross country. She returned to Dartmouth in ’03 to take an assistant coaching position for the women’s basketball team, and began work on a thesis for a graduate program on writing and leadership development.
Banghart has always been fascinated by the philosophy of coaching, the myriad ways in which leadership manifests itself. She decided to pursue an oral history of the profession for her thesis.
She met with Anson Dorrance of North Carolina soccer, Geno Auriemma of UConn, the late Kay Yow, formerly of North Carolina State. Through the course of these discussions, a common thread crystallized. Then, an epiphany.
“The successful leaders I interviewed were true to who they were,” Banghart says on the phone on an early Monday afternoon, 10 days before Christmas. “So, it wasn’t about trying to be more similar to Geno, or (Hall of Fame Tennessee coach) Pat Summitt or Kay Yow, it’s about being true to me. That’s who you know best. I learned I wanted to be the best version of myself.”
Since taking the helm of the Princeton women’s basketball team in ’07, Banghart has done just that, while winning at an astounding rate. Before her arrival, the Tigers hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament. In 2010, ’11, ’12 and ’13, they won Ivy League titles and went dancing. Last season, they were 9-3 in league—a strong showing, before you consider that in the previous four campaigns, they lost a total of two league games.
“We’ve gotten really good players, who choose Princeton over other high-major opportunities,” Banghart says. “I think it’s because I’ve been able to articulate exactly what Princeton offers. Being an Ivy League athlete myself, I recognize the value of this particular collegiate environment. It’s not a professionalized sport environment; it’s an environment where you get a combination of athletics, academics and social experiences. And I think a lot of college kids want that.”
Banghart is a discerning evaluator when recruiting. She always ticks off three boxes for a prospect. Miss one, no dice.
They come from winning pedigrees (“You don’t want to be teaching kids how to win,” Banghart says), they are relentless competitors (“Those are the ones that rise to the top”) and they have a certain “it” about them.
“These kids are the type of people you build your professional career around, and they’re a part of your life forever,” Banghart says. “So for me, they have to have a genuine enthusiasm for life. That’s just who I surround myself with, those are the kinds of people I want to be around. People genuinely enthusiastic about everything, even practice on Christmas Day.”
There’s one more box, something that Niveen Rasheed (Princeton ’13), arguably the greatest player in Ivy League women’s basketball history, describes in another phone interview.
When recruits come on official visits to Princeton, Banghart will meet with her current players after the weekend wraps. She wants to get their consensus on the kid. Because when you’re 17 years old and meeting a coach in person for the first time, explains Rasheed, you’re not going to showcase your true personality.
“So [Banghart] trusts our insight,” Rasheed says. “And if that recruit doesn’t fit in with the team, she won’t even consider her. Team dynamic is such a huge part of who we are. If you see a women’s player walking on campus, there’s always a teammate within two feet. We’re a family, and we care about the future.”
When she first took the job, Banghart sold recruits, Rasheed included, on her vision. She wanted to win Ivy League titles, she wanted to make runs in the NCAA Tournament. But most importantly, she wanted her players to enjoy the unique atmosphere provided at Princeton.
This season, it has kicked into high gear. Princeton is 13-0, the second-best start in Ivy League basketball history, behind the 1970-71 Penn men’s team, which began 28-0. The Tigers win consummately. Exacting defense, offensive efficiency.
Funny, how that leads to good things.
Blake Dietrick is an English major with a GPA that’s downright gaudy. She can expound upon Geoffrey Chaucer, whose tales were recorded in Middle English, that fantastic linguistic melange of English and German and French. Shakespeare is another personal favorite.
Dietrick plays for the Princeton women’s lacrosse team. The 5-10 senior guard is also currently leading Princeton in scoring and assists.
When Dietrick was 10, she went with her family on a trip to Florida. Along the way from their Wellesley, MA, home, her dad decided to take tours of colleges. When they came to Princeton, Dietrick felt that strange magnetism associated with special places in our lives. She played in Freedom Fountain, walked through campus and developed, as she puts it, “this idealized version of what Princeton was.”
“So when basketball recruiting picked up, Princeton was my dream school. It was the perfect combination of academics and basketball,” Dietrick says.
Dietrick told Banghart that she was interested in Princeton. Banghart extended an invitation to the elite camp, where she would evaluate Dietrick with her staff.
She was nervous as the camp began. Would she be good enough? The Princeton dynamic quickly assuaged any fears. During scrimmages, Dietrick played on a team with then-incoming Tigers freshman Nicole Hung. Dietrick quickly felt at home. All that nervous energy? Dietrick channeled it into effort, and it made a big impression.
“Here’s what’s great about Blake,” says Banghart. “When she came to our elite camp, she never stopped. And this is a camp where there’s 50 people, and nobody knows anybody else. She emerged by far, far and away as the best motor and the most competitive, with the willingness to say, ‘I don’t care who’s on my team, what time we’re playing, who we’re playing against, or if I don’t even know the names of my teammates’. She didn’t care if it was a shooting drill. She was just a winner.”
Dietrick entered Princeton seriously sufficient on offense, but she quickly took to the Tigers’ staple. “Coach Banghart says if you can defend, you can play. So I knew that’s what I needed to do to be on the court and help that team,” Dietrick says.
Now she is a reigning Ivy League first-teamer, and one of the most dynamic guards in college basketball. A warrior, who just wants to win.
“She’s a perfect example of our program,” says Banghart. “If you’re willing to commit to it, you can become really good. And she’s become a really good basketball player. As much as I would like to take credit for her development, you gotta give it to the kid. She didn’t waste one minute, and she’s reaping the benefits now.”
Princeton’s dream of a fifth consecutive Ivy League title was dashed by Penn on this past season’s final day. Though they made another postseason appearance, reaching the second round of the NIT and finishing with 21 wins, they weren’t satisfied.
Banghart laid it out for her returning players. She knew this team was supremely talented on the offensive end; she wanted to learn whether they were willing to become great on defense. That was the path back to Ivy League glory.She needn’t have worried. The players were on board before school let out for summer.
“There’s a tremendous amount of trust within our organization,” says Banghart, “and that’s not just the kids trusting me — it’s me trusting them. We communicate openly about everything. They trusted that my emphasis on the defensive end would help us win.”
Due to NCAA guidelines, which restrict coaches’ access during the offseason, most of the work had to be completed individually. And Princeton summers, with 90-degree heat and humidity, reveal character quickly. But Dietrick had made a commitment, and she dutifully applied herself. She did the slides, threw her arms up on closeouts, tapped her toes in rapid staccato for footwork.
“It all comes back to trust,” Dietrick says. “You trust that your teammates are working as hard. If you slack off, you’re not upholding your end of the bargain.”
As proof of how far things have come, Dietrick brings up an anecdote from Monday morning’s practice. She’d made a good play in help defense, which drew a strange compliment from her coach.You were barely in help last season!
Translation: “I was in help defense at the right time, and when Coach told me that, I figured, well, I’m definitely improving,” Dietrick says, chuckling. “It’s about watching film, focusing upon everything, making each defensive possession as good as possible.”
Rasheed remembers practices when Dietrick, then an underclassman, would go up against Lauren Polansky. She’d watch Dietrick pick up Polansky in the backcourt, shadowing her as she dribbled and attempted to initiate the offense. Then, Dietrick would handle the ball against the three-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year.
All that work, all that experience gained in this considerable crucible, has now come full circle. “Blake is crushing it,” Rasheed says. “Even during her recruiting visit when she was a senior in high school, you could tell she was out to dominate.”
In an 85-55 win over previously unbeaten Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Tigers held Wolverines leading scorer Shannon Smith to two points.
Rasheed had watched the game (Ivy League mashing on the Big 10!) and texted Banghart to congratulate her. Within seconds, her phone pinged with a response: How was our defense? Rasheed chuckles as she recounts this. Coach being Coach.
It’s not as if the Tigers have regressed into a grind-it-out format to fuel this surge, either. Indeed, for the past several seasons, Banghart has employed a freewheeling offense. “Pressure on defense, push in transition” is a common refrain.
Three Tigers are hitting better than 45 percent from three; the team clocks in at 45.6 percent from deep. Dietrick posts 14.6 points and 5.9 assists, but she’d rather talk about the four juniors who accompany her in the starting lineup, including 6-0 Annie Tarakchian, who’s listed as a guard/forward in testament to her all-around nous. In addition to her team-leading 9.1 rebounds per game, Tarakchian averages 11.0 points and 2.4 assists. She’s hitting 57 percent of her threes.
Through the first 13 games, the Tigers are hitting 49 percent of their field goals. They’re assisting on 61 percent of them. They maintain a +9.7 advantage on the boards, and rank in the top 20 nationally in scoring (51.5), field-goal (33.7 percent) and three-point percentage (24.8 percent) defense.
“This team doesn’t have that one bona-fide star, but it’s as good defensively as some of my elite teams, and it has more weapons on the offensive end,” says Banghart. “It’s a really good combination: defending, accountability, and playing fearlessly on offense. It’s turning into a very special group.”
Over Thanksgiving weekend, Princeton participated in the Cancun Challenge, in Mexico. During a game against Montana, Dietrick approached Banghart at the second half’s under-12 media timeout. The Tigers were up 15, but Grizzlies guard Kellie Rubel had scored 10 points since the break. “I want to guard her,” Dietrick told Banghart.”I was frustrated,” Dietrick says, when asked about the initiative. “[Rubel] was going off, and that exact ability of hers had been on our scouting report. So I wanted to be the one to stop her, to shut her down, to make a statement.”
Banghart OK’d the switch. Dietrick held Rubel scoreless the rest of the way. The Tigers won by 25.
She does the same thing in practice. Say Tigers junior guard Michelle Miller starts heating up during a scrimmage—Dietrick will slide over to guard her. “I want to be a leader as much defensively as offensively,” she says.
And after each game, Dietrick heads to the locker room white board. She writes down the name of the latest conference the Tigers have taken down. It’s a lengthening list.
“We’ve got a combination of confidence and a chip on our shoulder,” says Dietrick. “We’ve learned what it is to lose, and we have this desire to get that championship back. We hate to lose. You see it in every practice. Even if it’s just a drill where the loser runs, we’ll do anything not to.”
As her interview with SLAM wrapped, Dietrick was already raring to get back on to the court. Princeton had a road game against Delaware the following night. In an 87-59 win over the Blue Hens, Dietrick posted a double double (12 points, 10 assists with 0 turnovers).
In an interview with the Ivy League Network afterward, Banghart said, “What I love about this team is that we don’t talk about being undefeated. We talk about getting better.”
At halftime of a road game against American University (located in Washington, DC) last month, the Tigers had just gathered in the locker room when a polite rapping was heard at the door.
The First Lady of the United States wondered if she might say a few words to the team.
An agent quickly canvassed the room. Once the all-clear was given, the Tigers stared, awestruck, as Michelle Obama (Princeton, ’85) walked in.
“She told us we were doing a great job, and to make sure we kept pressuring American on defense,” Dietrick says. “It was amazing. She recognized us for what we were doing on the court, and she’d analyzed the game. She could tell us exactly what coach Banghart had just told us to do in the second half!”
When it comes to this Princeton team, however, Mrs. Obama’s brother might have the greatest take. Craig Robinson (Princeton ’83), a former forward for the Tigers men’s basketball team and most recently a Division I head coach, is the proud father of Leslie Robinson, a 6-0 freshman forward on Banghart’s team.
After a game this season, Robinson couldn’t hide his excitement. He told Banghart, “I don’t want to coach this team. I want to be on this team.”
After that 63-56 win over American, the Tigers won their next nine games by an average of 29 points. On Monday, Princeton appeared in the AP and Coaches polls for the first time since the ’11-12 season. The First Lady is a fan. Most of America will soon be along for the ride.
Says Dietrick, “I’m so humbled. We want to keep it going. We want to see how far we can go.”