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Tarakchian leads Tigers to 2nd round

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Courtney Banghart had seen it once too often. It was not much more than a year ago and one more time than she could stomach watching Annie Tarakchian, then a sophomore, catch the ball in good position near the basket, hold the ball over her head and look to pass without ever showing the slightest inclination to propel a strong frame to the basket.

"Annie is about the most gentle soul on this earth, and she's really kind," Banghart said. "Those two, gentle and kind, are not great inside the lines. Inside the lines for the first year and a half at Princeton she was gentle and kind."

So when Tarakchian was passive one too many times in practice before a key road trip to Harvard and Dartmouth a season ago, Princeton already in a hole in the Ivy League race by then, Banghart whistled proceedings to a halt and delivered a simple rebuke. She had tried in the past to deliver the message with encouragement and positive reinforcement. Here she went for the equivalent of when a parent uses a child's first, middle and last name to preface a reprimand.

"I'm so tired of loving you -- because I just love you so much I'm tired of it," Banghart recalled telling her. "Next time you catch the ball and you put it over your head to pass it, just don't get on the bus. Because it's not helping us."

In case there is any confusion, it was not a message delivered tenderly .

"She ripped me a little bit," Tarakchian said.

Tarakchian got on the bus for Harvard and Dartmouth. By the time she stepped off it at the end of the trip, she was the Ivy League player of the week, having averaged a team-best 14.5 points in two wins and missed a total of two shots. A lightly used reserve to that point, she never looked back. She totaled 18 points and 12 rebounds in the first round of the 2014 WNIT and carried the form into this season. She is both one of Princeton's three elite 3-point shooters and the team's best rebounder.

And that's exactly the role she played Saturday, unstoppable on the perimeter and immoveable on the boards. She finished with 19 points, including three 3-pointers, and 17 rebounds, the most ever for an Ivy League player in the NCAA tournament (for good measure, she also had five assists). On the strength of its dominant, physical rebounding and 3-point shooting, No. 8 seed Princeton beat No. 9 Green Bay 80-70. In doing so, it remained perfect on the season at 31-0 and set up a second-round encounter with top-seeded Maryland, which pulled away from No. 16 New Mexico State for a 75-57 win in the day's second game.

"Some kids you have to love them, and some kids you have to get angry at them, and some kids you have to challenge them," Banghart said of Tarakchian. "It just took me awhile to figure out how to get Annie and get her a little bit of my edge."

Princeton was tough Saturday. Her status in some doubt as recently as Friday because of a virus, Michelle Miller scored 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting, added seven rebounds and plugged a defensive leak when she switched assignments with Tarakchian and slowed Green Bay's Mehryn Kraker, a threat all day at the 3-point line and off the dribble. Ivy League player of the year Blake Dietrick had a quiet stat line but showed ample toughness just surviving 40 minutes of defense from Green Bay sisters Kaili and Megan Lukan with her sanity intact. Alex Wheatley was a constant aggressive presence on the boards against Green Bay's array of post players.

Princeton finished with a 49-22 rebounding advantage. It nearly had more offensive rebounds than Green Bay had total rebounds.

There was a definite unspoken suggestion from Green Bay players and coach Kevin Borseth that Princeton was, in fact, curiously physical for a team that was only whistled for 12 fouls, but that was a debate about officiating. When Borseth, according to Banghart, stopped by the winning locker room after the game, it wasn't to complain about any calls but to compliment her for the toughness with which her team played in the game as it was called. No coach is better qualified to comment on that trait than Borseth.

Amid all of that, nobody was tougher or more physical than Tarakchian.

"It took me a year and a half to find myself on the college basketball stage," Tarakchian. "Just because I am [positionally] a 3-4, I go through that identity crisis, I guess you could say, as a guard and a forward. Figuring it out on the floor was tough, but after that weekend, I really just got into myself. I think it's about confidence and just being comfortable with knowing how you play and how your teammates play."

She was the perfect stretch four in Saturday's win, a position increasingly en vogue in basketball that sacrifices some size at the power forward position for the versatility of a player who can step outside the lane. It was an impressive showing for someone whose early passivity was in part because a high school center recruited to play guard at Princeton found herself learning yet another position.

"She gives us a versatility that's been very advantageous for us in a lot of different games, just because of the way she can stretch the floor, the way she rebounds," assistant coach Milena Flores said. "She's just naturally a rebounder. She's a hungry rebounder and she knows where to be. She gets so many defensive rebounds, so we're able to get a lot of one-and-dones and push the ball where we can be pretty effective.

"She's been an X factor for us, with a lot of the kind of high-major teams, too, because they don't always like to stretch out their defense that way. They're going to have bigger bodies, and they don't necessarily like to be on the perimeter."

She was speaking generally, but there is a team that calls College Park home that fits the description rather well.

Maryland was sluggish early against New Mexico State, a team that in keeping with a theme here, was better, or at least more athletic defensively, than a typical No. 16 seed. But the top seed eventually rolled, fueled by 22 points and 12 rebounds from Brionna Jones. New Mexico State coach Mark Trakh, who saw talented posts during his time in the Pac-12, compared the task of guarding Jones with a smaller roster to PT boats surrounding a battleship. The Terrapins can, and did Saturday, surround her with four guards or pair her with another big body.

Princeton hasn't played a team like that this season. There aren't that many teams like Maryland.

"Let's just call a spade a spade," Banghart said. "The [No. 1 seeds] in women's basketball are really good.

"So regardless of the result, if we don't beat Maryland, it doesn't mean that we couldn't beat the 15th-ranked team in the country. That's the part where the seed bothers you, is the second round of this tournament because you're playing a 1 seed."

Anyone who watched the game between Princeton and Green Bay knows intuitively that they saw two of the best 25 teams in the country. Yet beating Green Bay in the manner it did isn't going to earn Princeton full marks from some skeptics. It was physical against a smaller mid-major, the criticism will go, but it can't play that role against a team as big and athletic as Maryland.

"They're going to have athleticism across the board," Banghart said. "They're really elite in transition, so these 19 turnovers that were not necessarily sharp basketball on our end, they become a critical problem against Maryland. Obviously Jones brings a challenge in the interior. But she's not a step-out 4 [like Green Bay's Kraker]. ...

"In the mid-major level, you have kids that are really skilled 1 through 5. I think Maryland is more of an athletic team, so we have to be able to shrink the court differently on the defensive end, on the offensive end we'll have to expand the court so that they have to deal with our skill set."

Only two teams in the country rank in the top 10 in both rebound margin and 3-point accuracy. One is Connecticut, of course. The other is Princeton, tied with Connecticut atop 3-point shooting and tied with Maryland for sixth in rebounding. The Ivy League team will need both assets Monday night. It will need to shoot like the quintessential mid-major. It will need to be physical like the Sweet 16 team Banghart attempted to recruit.

It will need a lot of what Tarakchian does so well.

"We take pride in outrebounding our opponents," Banghart said. "We're going to outrebound -- we're going to try to outrebound Maryland, too. It's what we do. So [Green Bay] was a blue-collar game, and that's how we like it."

She stopped herself there just short of going out on a rather precarious limb. She wanted to say it. She wanted to say they would outrebound Maryland because she believes her team can. That's the little something she wanted to impart to Tarakchian when she stopped practice that day a season ago.

"She's still gentle and kind," Banghart said. "But she's got a little edge now."

And Princeton is still an Ivy League team. But it has a little edge. And it has a place in the second round.