On the evening of March 1, a funny thing happened to the Princeton University women’s basketball team on their way to a possible fourth straight Ivy League title.
Princeton lost to Harvard. That marked only the second time over the past four seasons that Princeton, still the favorite to win a fourth consecutive conference title, had lost to an Ivy League opponent.
Princeton Head Coach Courtney Banghart can provide lots of reasons for that success, but there’s no doubt about who’s at the top of the list: guard Niveen Rasheed.
“You get this question a lot,” she said. “Is Niveen the best player in Ivy League history? As a coach, I care about winning, and she’s won the most games of any player in Ivy League history, so I think the answer’s pretty clear.”
Niveen Rasheed first visited Princeton on a lark. She’s a self-described California girl who thought perhaps she’d fit in at Stanford. But her A.A.U. teammate and best friend, Lauren Polansky, a highly-regarded point guard, was thinking Ivy League. Rasheed thought a weekend in New Jersey with her pal might be fun. I asked the two players if they thought Coach Banghart figured she had an angle on a package deal. Lauren began the answer.
“Yeah, I think the two of us absolutely loved playing with each other…speaking for the two of us,” Polansky said.
“I mean, I like wanted my point guard with me in college, you know?” Rasheed added. “To have the person passing it to you, but, no L.P. had a huge interest in Ivy League schools, and Princeton, and so it made the decision that much easier. L.P. committed, and called, and I was like, ‘You’re sure you’re going?’ and I was like ‘Don’t lie.’ And she was like, ‘Yes,’ and I was ‘All right.’
The six-year friendship has been that strong, though some may see it as unlikely. Lauren Polansky is Jewish. Niveen Rasheed is a Palestinian-American, and most of her family still lives in the West Bank and Gaza.
“It never changed how I thought about her, how she thought about me,” Rasheed said. “It’s definitely something special to be a part of, hopefully changing how other people think about each other. There’s a lot to learn from not judging, not stereotyping your friendship based on backgrounds or something miles away if it just only helps a few people seeing that, it’s an accomplishment in itself.”
Whatever great friends and complimentary teammates Polansky and Rasheed have accomplished in terms of international understanding, they have certainly cranked up the quality of women’s basketball at Princeton. The team had never made it to the NCAA tournament before they arrived; they’ve never failed to make the postseason since. According to Coach Banghart, when the season ends, the stars will certainly be missed.
“There’s a sense that when they go, you lose something pretty profound when you lose those guys, and you know I just really hang my hat on the fact that they’ve left us better,” she said. “And our faithful fans, and the media, you know, they have to find another media darling.
For the past two seasons, Lauren Polansky has been named the Ivy League’s best defensive player. She was good enough in high school so that Kathy Delaney-Smith, the women’s coach at Harvard, certainly noticed her.
“Lauren came to our elite weekend,” Delaney-Smith said. “She was really interested in Harvard, ironically. But we, we were looking for something different. Had I known it was a package deal, maybe I would have changed my mind. But I do think that Niveen was just a very athletic – and I don’t know if you could have predicted how good she would turn out.”
Effective and successful as Lauren Polansky has been, she harbors no illusions about basketball after college. With a smile, she acknowledges that she’ll be taking her degree in political economics into the job market. Though she’s averaged a team-high 17 points per game and led the team in rebounds as well, Niveen Rasheed is a little bashful when asked about the possibility of basketball beyond Princeton. Her coach is not.
“It’s not a secret how good Niveen Rasheed is,” Banghart said. “It’s not a secret that she wants to play in the WNBA, and with that would come a lot of European or overseas experience, and you know, I think there’s about a 100 percent chance she’ll be playing somewhere next year.”
Rasheed’s backcourt partner for the past four ridiculously successful seasons, during which the team’s winning percentage has been about .980 in the Ivy League, hopes that opportunity arises with the WNBA’s New York Liberty. Lauren Polansky has heard there might be opportunities for a bright student of political economics in the New York area, and she doesn’t want to have to travel too far for the complimentary ticket she’s sure will be waiting for her wherever Niveen Rasheed is employed.