Winning in the Big DanceA Taste of March Madness
The buzzer sounded, and I jumped in the air as my teammates rushed the court. We had just defeated Green Bay for the first NCAA tournament win in the history of our program. A sea of orange clad supporters cheered from behind our bench, among them none other than President of the United States Barack Obama. With 31 wins and 0 losses – we were the only undefeated team in the nation.
Every child in America who has ever picked up a basketball dreams of playing in March Madness. The NCAA tournament is the biggest stage the game has to offer, the culminating moment for all the years of practices, games and training. I remember in lower school when my rec league coach used to pretend to announce our starting lineup to the empty gym: “From Pasadena, California… Number 34… Michelle Miller!!!” While I dreamed, never did I really think that a decade later I would be sitting in front of thousands of fans at the big dance, hearing my name called.
Throughout my basketball career, I have learned many valuable lessons of perseverance, sacrifice, self-confidence and sportsmanship, but perhaps the most essential thing I have learned is the importance of teamwork. What made our team so special this year was simple—we were a true team. After falling short of the league title last year, we were all driven to work hard in the offseason, and we came back with an edge. There were to be no excuses, no sense of entitlement, no taking anything for granted. We recommitted ourselves to playing tenacious defense, to outworking every opponent, to getting better each practice. One through 15, we found our roles, each vital to the success of the group. We were unified by the goal of winning, whatever that took. Everyone bought into the success of the group being greater than any individual’s milestone.
We were undeniably excited when we first learned we had made the AP poll the day of our last non-conference game, but we remained focused on each opponent in front of us, not how many votes we received. We knew we had something to prove, and we played like it on a consistent basis, pushing each other in practices and celebrating each other in games. Our motto this year was “got your six,” a military saying meaning “got your back,” and owning that mentality allowed us to finish the regular season as undefeated Ivy Champions at 30 and 0, earning a #13 national ranking.
Yet our final goal had not yet been achieved. While our program had been successful in the regular season before, we had never won an NCAA tournament game. When I played in the tournament freshman year, it seemed almost like a dream; the moment was too big for me. This year, however, we had the requisite experience, and we were ready. For the first time in NCAA tournament history, an Ivy team was wearing white as the favored team in a tournament game.
The Green Bay game, to me, was a microcosm of our entire season. We played together, both with each other and for each other. We outrebounded a tough opponent, showing we would not back down from any battle. Five players reached double figures in scoring, stepping up at different points throughout the game to give us exactly what we needed, just as different players had stepped up throughout the year. My euphoria when the final buzzer sounded was a feeling I will never forget: My childhood dream had become a reality.
The fact that President Obama was there supporting us made that day even more special. After all, how many people ever have had the honor of playing in front of the president? It also represents what is so unique about this program—the fact that it transcends basketball.
It takes an immeasurable amount of passion and dedication to be able to play at the division one level anywhere, but to play at Princeton also requires a passion for life. Every one of my teammates has this passion, this desire to achieve by being her best and therefore elevating those around her, not just on the court but in all facets of life. This intangible quality allowed us to have the best season in program history, a season that became one for the record books. Next year, however, we have a new goal: to make the sweet sixteen.