Sparked by Junior Cunningham’s Emergence as a Star, PU Women’s Hoops Tops Boston University, Now 3-0
DOUBLING HER FUN: Princeton University women’s basketball player Julia Cunningham dribbles the ball last Sunday against visiting Boston University. Junior guard Cunningham posted her first career double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds to help the Tigers prevail 69-40 in its first game at Jadwin Gym since February 2020. The win improved Princeton to 3-0 and extended its winning streak to 25 stretching back to the 2019-20 campaign. The Tigers play at Rhode Island on November 20 and at Temple on November 23. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
With the Princeton University women’s basketball team having its 2020-21 season canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, Julia Cunningham took a gap year and turned her attention to self-improvement.
“With the year off, you are not playing games and there is not that kind of strain on your body, you get to focus on some of things you wouldn’t normally get to focus on — getting in shape, getting stronger, lifting together,” said Princeton junior guard Cunningham, a 5’11 native of Watchung, N.J., who lived with two of her teammates in the Princeton area during the 2020-21 school year.
“I think it was really important. We spent a lot of time in the gym, getting shots up, getting reps.”
Last Sunday as Princeton hosted Boston University for its first game at Jadwin Gym since February 29, 2020, Cunningham displayed the fruits of that labor, contributing 20 points and 11 rebounds for her first career double-double to help Princeton pull away to a 69-40 win over the Terriers.
The win improved the Tigers to 3-0 and extended their winning streak to 25 stretching back to the 2019-20 campaign.
“I think for me it is the defense into offense,” said Cunningham, reflecting on her progress.
“We really get our momentum from the defensive end and coming down offensively we are just very confident. We rep it out in practice here on our home court. We get a lot of shots up on these baskets, it is just being confident with the ball in my hands.”
Getting the chance to finally play again at Jadwin gave the Tigers confidence.
“It is exciting for sure, I think our main goal is to defend our home court,” said Cunningham.
“We haven’t played here in 600 and something days. We were definitely looking forward to that, being in front of own fans and in our own environment. It was great.”
Princeton defended its home court with intensity, stifling the Terriers in jumping out to a 17-8 lead after the first quarter.
“Defensively, our mentality is always to keep teams under 40 points,” said Cunningham.
“It is hard to win a game under 40 points. We were pretty happy with that. I think coming out in the game, we want to frustrate teams. I think that is the best way to do it. It turns defense into offense.”
The Tigers showed balance at the offensive end in the win over BU as Abby Meyers scored 15 points and Grace Stone added 13.
“I think scoring wise we have a lot of threats with Abby, Maggie [Connolly], and Grace,” said Cunningham.
“We have a lot of people to go to, just looking at the basket and being confident every time we are going down on that offensive end is going to be important for us.”
With two college seasons under her belt, Cunningham is looking to take more of a leadership role this winter.
“Coming in a lot of these underclassmen haven’t played any college basketball games so it is just walking them through the process,” said Cunningham.
“There is a big learning curve. I think our upperclassmen are taking a leadership role, all of us. I think that is going to be really important especially as we get into games where there is a little adversity and we get a punch in the face. Walking them through that, being calm, being composed and the leadership force on the court is going to be big for us.”
In Cunningham’s view, the veterans and the newcomers are coming together well.
“We have really good chemistry off the court, especially the upperclassmen group that has played together before,” said Cunningham.
“We work really hard for each other. When you work hard, you are going to win games, regardless of anything else. We are all really good friends. When we get on the court, we just really complete for each other, we want to win games. We know that the person behind us has our back and that is a really good way to go into a game. You have a lot of confidence in yourself and your team and that is going to win games.”
Princeton head coach Carla Berube was excited to see her players take the court at Jadwin.
“It was awesome, we couldn’t wait to play here and see our fans and our families,” said Berube. “It is a long time coming but happy that the day is finally here.”
The Tiger defense didn’t look like it has missed a beat despite the long layoff.
“The focus on defense is not going to change,” said Berube, who guided the Tigers to a 26-1 record in 2019-20 during her first season at the helm of the program.
“Because we have returners that know how to defend and have been a part of it, it is an easier transition than starting from ground zero. We have a lot of new faces that are coming along very well and understand it and are working really hard at it. The leadership that we have just helps us out.”
Cunningham’s emergence as a star has been the product of a lot of work.
“People understand that they need to step up in new roles and I think Julia took that to heart; she worked really hard during her gap year and never rested,” said Berube of Cunningham, who is averaging 19.0 points and 8.3 rebounds a game this season after averaging 8.2 points and 3.1 rebounds in 2019-20.
“The difference between Ivy League teams and the rest of the world is that we have been able to work on our individual skill set. She certainly did that, her 3 looks great. Abby Meyers worked on her game a lot too. These role players that were around Carlie [Littlefield] and Bella [Alarie] are stepping into bigger roles, bigger spots.”
With Princeton playing at Rhode Island on November 20 and at Temple on November 23, Berube is looking for her squad to build on its hot start.
“I think I’m happiest that we are just coming together as a team,” said Berube.
“I love the energy from 1 through 16. I am happy with three great victories. It is nice to start out the season 3-0. We knew this was going to be a tough stretch to start the year. We came in ready to go and people are stepping up.”
Cunningham, for her part, is confident that the Tigers will keep stepping up.
“I am happy about the 3-0 for sure; we are focusing just one game at a time and that is really big for us, especially being a young team,” said Cunningham.
“The win streak is great but we are taking it one game at a time, we have a tough non-conference schedule. We are taking it one day at a time and I think that is going to be our focus moving forward.”