Princeton star Rasheed lifts women to NCAA berth

When Princeton star Niveen Rasheed scans the crowd at the upcoming NCAA women's basketball tournament, it's a safe bet she'll lock eyes on a family member who flew in from Miami or Los Angeles.

Maybe it will be 37-year-old brother Duke El-Manasara, who put the first basketball in her hands, and jetted from Florida for all Niveen's home games her freshman season in 2009-10. Or sister Nadya, who often made the shorter trips from Manhattan to New Jersey this season to cheer with her nearly 2-year-old daughter.

"The games bring us together," said Nadya Rasheed, a diplomat for the Palestinians at the United Nations. "There's usually one family member at all her home games."

Rasheed also draws a crowd on the court, leading Princeton in scoring (17.0) and rebounding (9.2). The Tigers recently clinched their third straight Ivy League title and NCAA tournament berth, becoming the first team since Harvard (1996-98) to accomplish that feat.

The Ivy League is the only conference that doesn't have a postseason tournament, so the regular-season champion gets the automatic bid to the NCAAs.

Princeton's dominance has coincided with the arrival of Rasheed, the versatile 6-foot junior and political science major from Danville, Calif.

"She's raised the level of our competitiveness as a unit just leaps and bounds," coach Courtney Banghart said. "She's powerful, so she can score. I think she's got a motor that's really rare at any level."

At 23-4 overall, 13-0 in the Ivy League, three of the Tigers' four losses were to ranked teams Stanford, Delaware and DePaul. Rasheed averaged 19.6 points and 10.3 rebounds against those teams.

The Rasheed family gathered at Maples Pavilion on Dec. 17 when Princeton played then-No. 4 Stanford. Her siblings flew in, joining parents Rifaat and Hanan and sisters Linda and Bethaina.

"My family is very supportive and was very sports oriented growing up," said Niveen, who led her Monte Vista High School to a 99-18 record. "The whole town, the kids were into soccer, basketball, any kind of sports right away. Our parents were always shuttling us to a soccer or basketball tournament."

Rasheed said it seemed like a "Princeton home game" with family, friends and high school teammates in attendance from her town, an hour from Stanford.

"It was a huge floor to play on, it was a packed house and felt like a tournament game with the atmosphere," said Rasheed, who was interested in Stanford but wasn't recruited. "It was a big stage. It felt like a lot was at stake."

The Tigers trailed 39-32 at halftime before the Cardinal pulled away for a 19-point win. Rasheed scored 16 points but was held to 6-for-20 shooting against the star Ogwumike sisters — 6-foot-2 Nnemkadi and 6-3 Chiney.

Four days later, then-No. 6 Tennessee lost to Stanford by 17.

Princeton assistant coach Milena Flores knows a bit about Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer's teams, helping the Cardinal reach the Final Four in 1997. She said it was important for Princeton to "hang athletically" with Stanford.

"I'm certainly not telling them war stories, but they see our intensity and enthusiasm as a coaching staff," said Flores, whose top-seeded Cardinal team was upset by 16th-seeded Harvard in the first round of the 1998 tournament — the lone Ivy League win in the NCAAs. "Hopefully, they gain confidence with the confidence we have in them."

Rasheed likes the "slashing swagger" of another Californian who played in the Ivy League — Knicks guard Jeremy Lin.

"He honestly has fun out there competing," Rasheed said of the former Harvard player. "He wants to win, yes, and scores 28 points, but he's actually making his team better."

When playing for Stanford didn't pan out, she followed AAU teammate Lauren Polansky to Princeton. Rasheed helped the Tigers finish undefeated in the Ivy League her freshman year, then tore a knee ligament in the middle of her sophomore season. She accompanied the team last August on an "eye-opening" trip to France and Senegal, but didn't play in the overseas games because the coaching staff was cautious.

Relocating to the East Coast includes the benefit of seeing little niece Aliya, who cheered and ran onto the court after a recent win at Columbia.

"She loves those games, she loves my sister," Nadya Rasheed said. "She's like obsessed with Niveen. She's a celebrity to her, it's very cute."

The 21-year-old player agreed, saying "she's a little diva, she wants to be just like her aunt."

Columbia coach Paul Nixon, who traveled to California to recruit her, recognizes the star qualities in Rasheed.

Before halftime in an 86-46 win against the Lions, she drove the lane on the last possession, had the ball knocked away and dived for it. She passed to a teammate, who swished a 3-pointer and put the Tigers up by 22.

"There's no line in the stat sheet for that, but it's such a big momentum play and inspires her team," Nixon said. "That's what makes her so valuable to them, she has the talent to fill in the blanks."

This year, the Tigers want to get past the first round of the NCAA tournament. They'll find out their opponent when the bracket comes out next Monday.

"We're hungry," Rasheed said. "It's not going to be easy, but I think our schedule prepared us."

Her family will fill the stands wherever Princeton lands. Except for sister Linda, who is due to have a baby in Los Angeles the first week of the NCAA tournament.