RALEIGH, N.C. — Bella Alarie felt a wave of emotions when she learned that her 12th-seeded Princeton women’s basketball team would be playing No. 5 seed Maryland in the opening round of the NCAA tournament Friday. She was proud of Princeton for beating Penn in the Ivy League tournament championship game and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and she was excited to play on the biggest stage of her career as a sophomore, after the Tigers went to the women’s NIT last year.
But more than anything, the Bethesda native and daughter of former Washington Bullets forward Mark Alarie was looking forward to proving herself to all those who would be watching back home.
Because of her father and her success in high school playing for National Cathedral, where she was a first-team All-Met, Alarie is fairly well-known in basketball circles throughout the Washington region. But for those who haven’t followed her career at Princeton, the lanky, 6-foot-4 wing has become a star. Last season, she became one of four freshmen in program history to start every game and ended the season earning the Ivy League’s rookie of the year honor.
For her encore, she was recently named conference player of the year after averaging a team-high 13.3 points and 9.6 rebounds while blocking 75 shots this season.
“Because we are playing Maryland, I think a lot more people back home are going to be watching the game,” Alarie said Wednesday after the team landed in Raleigh. “That does really give me an extra boost. I really do want to prove myself and show that I have gotten better since high school. I’m so proud to be on this team and wear the Princeton uniform but also be able to represent my home town at the same time.”
Coming out of high school, Alarie had natural talent but was thin and timid, unsure even of which position she would play in college. Her father had raised her to be a guard, not wanting his daughter to be thought of as nothing more than a post player because of her height.
His foresight paid off. At Princeton, Alarie has added 20 pounds, which helps her be more assertive on the court, and studied defense. The result is a skilled defender who shoots 49.2 percent from the field and is a three-point threat. When Maryland Coach Brenda Frese was asked whether the Terps had faced a player like Alarie all season, Frese drew a blank.
She couldn’t think of any player she knew of in women’s basketball who has a skill set and natural ability quite like Alarie’s. The first name she thought of — though she acknowledged the level of play was dramatically different — was Candace Parker.
Washington Mystics Coach Mike Thibault, in Raleigh to call this weekend’s game for ESPN, said Alarie and her father came by Mystics practices sometimes during the summer to watch Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman, two other versatile players with games similar to Alarie’s.
For Princeton Coach Courtney Banghart, getting that type of raw ability out of high school made Alarie a steal of a recruit.
“She’s a funny kid to talk about because a lot of coaches in the country are asking how I got Bella, and I say, ‘Well, she was 20 pounds lighter, and you all thought she was a toddler,’ ” Banghart said before the Tigers’ practice Thursday. “So she’s gotten a lot physically stronger. Her body is more prepared for the rigors of the high-level competitive game that this is.
“When she came to us, she was really a guard. A very long guard, but now she’s becoming a ’tweener, and I think with two more years’ development, I think there will be a lot of people at the next level that are going to be hoping to get her.”
Against Maryland, Banghart is depending on Alarie to embrace the role of go-to scorer as she has all season. In practice Thursday, Banghart directed play after play to run through the sophomore, encouraging Alarie to shoot layups higher to give herself a better chance of outreaching opponents for a rebound. She reminded the team that it has a special weapon in a trained guard who stands a head taller than the rest of her teammates.
“Who’s the tallest girl on the court?” Banghart asked when Alarie was passed up for a shot. The team’s second-leading scorer, Leslie Robinson (who happens to be Barack and Michelle Obama’s niece), pointed at her teammate and simply replied, “Bella.”
The Terps will have a few players to watch in addition to Alarie, such as Robinson; freshman Abby Meyers, another former All-Met from Whitman High who averages 9.3 points in 17.1 minutes for the Tigers; and junior guard Qalea Ismail, another Maryland native.
Frese is preparing for a little extra fire on court from the three local players in particular. She knows playing against the Terps in front of family and friends and a local audience watching on television back home adds extra meaning. She expects a fight from Alarie and the Tigers.
“To work so hard all year to even make it to the NCAA tournament, we’re just so proud of ourselves that we made it this far,” Alarie said. “For me, coming in I didn’t really expect to start or really even know what to expect at all out of my basketball career here. But the stars kind of aligned for me. It worked out really well. . . . We’ve gotten this far. I don’t think we’re nervous. We’re just excited for the opportunity.”