It took more than four months, but Princeton finally needed someone to put the ball in the net.
With university presidents current and past looking on from the stands at the Palestra in Philadelphia and a national television audience observing from afar (the latter possibly as unusual as the former when it comes to the Ivy League), Princeton couldn't shake rival Penn as the seconds ticked away early in the second half of the regular-season finale. Seeking to become just the 15th Division I team to complete an undefeated regular season, the Tigers led by five points at halftime but watched the Quakers score the first four points of the second half and cut the deficit to a single point.
All the while, Princeton coach Courtney Banghart stood with arms folded and watched, the pose as much spring-loaded as stoic. Good plays and bad plays came and went; her arms stayed fixed in place.
Then Blake Dietrick caught a crosscourt pass and let loose a shot from well beyond the 3-point line that dropped through the net. Banghart turned, pumped a fist and clapped. Penn's will never broke, but it never did get the lead, either. Gradually Princeton pulled away for a 55-42 win.
That it was the fewest points Princeton scored all season, but its fifth-smallest margin of victory meant little in the moment. The result secured a 30-0 record entering the NCAA tournament, the first unblemished mark for a team other than Baylor, Connecticut or Notre Dame in 17 years, almost the lifespan of some of the team's players.
"She is our fearless, relentless leader," Banghart said of Dietrick, the senior who leads the team in points and assists this season. "There are three words to describe Blake: fearless, relentless and winner. ... She's been a winner and she does it relentlessly and fearlessly. You always play to the personality of your leaders, and this team has really followed her tone remarkably and in a lot of ways that's made us really good."
Good thing she really wanted to play basketball at Princeton.
Fourteen years have passed since the school then known as Southwest Missouri State, now simply Missouri State, reached the Final Four in St. Louis with NCAA all-time leading scorer Jackie Stiles as its star. While the current standing of the American Athletic Conference, home of defending national champion Connecticut and little else of note, is debatable, that was the last time a school not part of an elite power conference advanced as far as the national semifinals.
"There are three words to describe Blake: fearless, relentless and winner. She's been a winner and she does it relentlessly and fearlessly." Princeton coach Courtney Banghart on Blake Dietrick
Princeton -- the No. 8 seed in the Spokane Regional -- will start its quest to be the next with the more modest goal of first reaching the Sweet 16, the tournament's second weekend still a rare destination for mid-majors and uncharted waters for any Ivy League team. (In fact, while Harvard made it memorable against No. 1 seed Stanford in 1998, that win remains the only one for an Ivy League team in the tournament.) There are plenty of reasons to think this could be an extended run. The Tigers have a collection of 3-point shooters who make this the most accurate shooting team in the country, paced by Dietrick, Michelle Miller and Annie Tarakchian. They have a post scorer in Alex Wheatley, whose 6-foot-2 listing might be generous but whose athleticism and inside moves allow her to torment defenders. Depth and size allow the Tigers to rebound and defend.
But what they have first and foremost is Dietrick, a 5-10 point guard from Wellesley, Massachusetts, and the team's lone senior starter. She isn't Stiles. She isn't Elena Delle Donne, who guided Delaware to the Sweet 16 more recently. She isn't asked to be like them. She is one of the best all-around guards in the tournament and the lever that facilitates perfection.
And you know what Archimedes said about levers. Well, if you go to Princeton you probably do.
Give her a place to stand and she will move the earth.
In what probably ranks as Princeton's most impressive win of the season, the Ivy League team went to Michigan, ultimately not an NCAA tournament team but still a postseason-quality Big Ten program, and routed the host 85-55. Dietrick didn't sneak up on the Wolverines, not when Michigan assistant coach Melanie Moore held the same position at Princeton when Dietrick arrived as a freshman. Michigan knew it had to contend with an athlete on par with those in its own conference, and still Dietrick totaled 22 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, three steals and no turnovers.
"She was unstoppable," Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. "She was deadly from 3-point range, but she also rebounded the basketball and had the ability to get her teammates involved. I think that's so special to be able to do all those things. When I think of a kid like that, I think of a kid like [Iowa All-American] Sam Logic in our league, who has the ability to be her team's leading scorer any night but also really their best passer and arguably one of their best rebounders."
Little wonder that like Stiles, who chose Southwest Missouri State despite interest from the likes of Connecticut and Tennessee, Dietrick drew attention from most of the national powers as a result of her ability to put the ball in the net. Except it wasn't Geno Auriemma, Muffet McGraw or Kim Mulkey calling. It was instead coaches like Kelly Amonte Hiller and Julie Meyers, the women's lacrosse coaches at Northwestern and Virginia, respectively.
"She was a huge scorer in high school," Princeton lacrosse coach Chris Sailer said. "She was great on the draw control, she's a left-hander, she's tall, she's fast, she's strong. Those qualities will take you far in the game of lacrosse if you also have good game sense and you're a harder worker and you have a good stick. Blake had all of those.
"It was a bit crushing to learn that she wanted to play basketball in college as her primary sport."
Which is why she spurned the early interest from some of the best lacrosse programs in the country and ended up, rather late in the recruiting process, at a Princeton basketball camp in what amounted to a tryout. Entranced by the school since she and her brother played in the Fountain of Freedom near the Woodrow Wilson School of Government on a family vacation when she was not yet a teenager, she wanted to go to Princeton above all else. But if she wanted to play basketball for a program already an emerging Ivy dynasty under Banghart, she first had to prove herself. So while most of her peers in the current senior class were being wooed, Dietrick was sweating out a résumé at that camp.
"It didn't take me very long to know people were missing the boat on Blake," Banghart said. "Princeton gets credit for recruiting Blake, and then we get credit for ensuring she played basketball here."
Not that everyone else necessarily knew it right away. Dietrick had as many assists in that win against Michigan earlier this season as she had her entire freshman season. Almost strictly a designated shooter who played limited minutes off the bench for a team that, as usual, won the Ivy League, she spent games watching from the bench and practices being hounded from one end of the court to the other by Lauren Polansky, a point guard the rest of the country might have forgotten but whom Ivy League opponents remember as one of the best on-ball defenders the conference has ever seen. As an athlete, Dietrick was major-conference caliber. As a basketball player, she was a work in progress.
"You come in expecting to contribute because you were the star in high school -- every single one of us that was recruited was the best kid on your high school team," Dietrick said. "And you come in and you're the last kid off the bench. That's a really big change. Getting used to that and having your expectations be totally crushed is tough, but you want to be better for the program and for your teammates and for yourself, and so you work your butt off every day in practice. It's not just about the minutes; it's about the program."
Yet as much work remained on the basketball court, not to mention the work and time required in the classroom, Dietrick still showed up at Banghart's office one day after that freshman season with a question that might have confounded some coaches. Nervous to such a degree that Banghart said it looked like she hadn't slept (she had), Dietrick wanted to know if she could play lacrosse for Princeton the following spring once basketball season was over.
So it is that Dietrick is the only player on the Princeton roster who has been part of an NCAA tournament win, a lacrosse first-round game against Penn State last May in which she scored two goals in a 16-13 victory. When this season ends, however it ends, Dietrick will soon thereafter pick up her stick and join the lacrosse team.
"I didn't look at it like a lack of commitment to our program," Banghart said. "I looked at it like a dual-sport athlete whose heart is in two places."
Like her current star, Banghart was a deadeye 3-point shooter during her own playing days at Dartmouth, but that role came about in part because that school had a soccer coach who was a little too good. Also recruited by the likes of Notre Dame and Boston College in soccer, Banghart originally intended to play the beautiful game at Dartmouth. But when Steve Swanson, now the head soccer coach at the University of Virginia and an assistant with the United States women's national team, left the school to take the head coaching position at Stanford, Banghart elected to play basketball for Dartmouth rather than follow Swanson to California.
Little wonder that teammates tease Dietrick for being essentially the same person as their coach.
"She's very dynamic and energetic -- she's full of life," Dietrick said of Banghart, who is now 168-68 at Princeton. "And she is extremely competitive, and I, too, am extremely competitive. So I think we both feed off each other in terms of our desire to win and be successful. She motivates me to be better. I can't imagine playing for anybody else. She's hard on us, but we know that it's out of love and trying to make us the best basketball players we can be."
Dietrick won't be remembered the same way that Stiles, Delle Donne, Courtney Vandersloot and other stars who rose above the mid-major label. She doesn't have the statistical résumé to carve out that kind of a place in history. But for a perfect team, she is the perfect player, someone who put in the work each year to make herself a complete basketball player and who sees the game and the world the same way as the coach who built the program.
"She knew that for this team to be great, she had to bring others along," Banghart said. "The kid's really smart, both in the classroom and as an athlete. So I think Blake knew that her numbers weren't going to be what were important. And not just about leaving a legacy but about knowing for this team to be great, she needed the pieces to be great alongside her. So I think she's focused the whole year on ensuring that the pieces around her had touches and got the ball where they could be effective and gained confidence."
And so the best season in the history of Princeton basketball continues.