March 16, 2022

PU Women’s Hoops Wins Ivy Tournament, Primed for NCAA Clash Against Kentucky

GRACEFUL MOVE: Princeton University women’s basketball player Grace Stone goes up for a shot in recent action. Last Saturday, junior guard Stone scored 12 points to help the Tigers defeat Columbia 77-59 in the Ivy League postseason tournament final in Cambridge, Mass., and earn the league’s automatic bid to the upcoming NCAA tournament. Princeton, now 24-4, is seeded 11th in the Bridgeport Region and will face sixth-seeded Kentucky (19-11) in a first round contest on March 19 in Bloomington, Ind. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

As the players on the Princeton University women’s basketball team entered Jadwin Gym last Sunday evening to watch the NCAA tournament selection show, they broke into a dance together to the music pounding on the arena sound system.

About a half hour later, they leaped to their feet in unison when they found out their NCAA first around assignment which has them seeded 11th in the Bridgeport Region and facing sixth-seeded Kentucky (19-11) in a first round contest in Bloomington, Ind. on March 19.

For Tiger junior guard Grace Stone, the NCAA assignment evoked a sense of deja vu.

“We played Kentucky the first round my freshman year,” said Stone, referring to an 82-77 setback to the Wildcats on March 23, 2019 in Raleigh, N.C. “Actually it was exactly the same seeding which is interesting. I think that they are a really great team and I am really excited to figure out how we can play them and what things we can do.”

The Tigers had to figure out some things last weekend at the Ivy League postseason tournament in Cambridge, Mass., edging host Harvard 72-67 in the semis on Friday and then pulling away to a 77-59 win over Columbia in the title game a day later. The triumph improved the Tigers to 24-4 and extended their winning streak to 17.

In Stone’s view, Princeton benefited by getting pushed over the weekend.

“A lot of our Ivy League games weren’t really that close,” said Stone of a campaign which saw the Tigers go 14-0 in regular season league play before winning the postseason tournament. “We prepared before the tournament for close games and those type of situations so I think it was a really good challenge for us.”

The Tigers enjoyed a very good moment at Lavietes Pavilion after beating Columbia, hugging each other and frolicking on the floor as confetti streamed down on them.

“It is so strange how fast it is going and how long it has been since we were able to celebrate something like that,” said Stone. “It was just pure bliss for all of us. We were just hugging each other, screaming. We all lost our voices, it was really exciting.”

The win had extra meaning as the 2019-20 squad won the regular season crown but didn’t get a chance to play in the Ivy tournament as the season was halted due to the global pandemic.

“It is definitely something that we are doing for our seniors that year, Bella [Alarie] and Taylor [Baur],” said Stone.

“They didn’t get this opportunity to play in the Ivy tournament. I think we could have done really well in the NCAA tournament with that team. We have positioned ourselves really well to do well in this tournament. I am really excited to get to work and prepare for Kentucky and try to do something cool.”

It took some work for the Tigers to get in that position. “We stuck together through a lot of adversity, we had to find our identity throughout the season,” said Stone.

“We lost Bella, we lost major pieces. I think that is just the perseverance of our team. The way we stuck together and the way that we love each other has made the season so much fun.”

The squad’s offensive balance has helped things come together for Princeton this year.

“I think that has always been a key to our team, there is not one player who has to do it all every single night,” said Stone, who scored 12 points in the win over Columbia in the final with Kaitlyn Chen leading the way with 30 and Julia Cunningham and Abby Meyers chipping in 16 apiece.

“I think that is super important. We all bring something different to the game. We all balance each other out really well. We support each other really well on the floor. We make a good team.”

Princeton head coach Carla Berube sensed that the Harvard matchup on Friday was going to be a stern test.

“We knew that going into the game that it was going to be Harvard’s best; it was possibly Kathy’s (longtime Harvard head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith) last game, it was at their place … so there were a lot of things stacked against us,” said Berube.

“I thought we just persevered and finally made the shots and got the stops that we needed. It was good to win like that. We hadn’t had a tight game since Towson (a 68-54 win on January 12). The game at Yale (a 61-49 win on January 28) was a tight one as well. It was good to get through that. At this time of the year, it is about survive and advance. We did that and got to play on Saturday.”

On Saturday, the Tigers rode the hot shooting of sophomore star Chen to pull away from Columbia.

“She can score in a lot of different ways; her shot was looking good, her takes to the rim, her pull-up jumpers, she was just facilitating our offense,” said Berube of Chen who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “We were able to execute and get Kaitlyn the ball in places that she could make shots. It was a great end to it.”

Berube beamed as she watched her players celebrate the title. “It was awesome, it was great,” said Berube.

“They work really hard so I am really proud of them. After the game I talked about Bella and what they mean and how their careers got cut short. We are always thinking about them.”

It was a great moment for Berube personally as she was in her first year at the helm of the Tiger program when the 2020 season got stopped.

“This is also my first go-through too so this is all really exciting,” said Berube, who guided Princeton to a 26-1 record in her debut campaign

“I am just really happy for our players. We have so many young players. This is their first college season, this is all new for them as well. I really look to my experienced players to show us the way.”

It will be challenging for the Tigers to find a way to beat Kentucky as the Wildcats recently won the SEC tournament by beating top-ranked South Carolina in the final and are riding a 10-game winning streak.

“I did see some of that game (the win over SC in SEC),” said Berube of the matchup which will see the victor advance to a second  round clash on Monday against the winner of the first round game between third-seeded and host Indiana and 14th-seeded Charlotte.

“I know Rhyne Howard (who is averaging 20.6 points a game and is a semifinalist for the women’s Naismith College Player of the Year Award) is a really talented player. We will get them ready. We have some time, we don’t play until Saturday. I am looking forward to the challenge ahead. I think we are ready for this next stage. We are hungry.”

In Berube’s view, her players have the poise to excel on the national stage.

“They are really composed, they get along really, really well,” said Berube. “We were lucky to be up in Boston for a week. It was so fun. We practiced at Tufts (where Berube coached for 17 years before coming to Princeton), we went into Harvard Square, they went into Chinatown one afternoon. It was just fun. It was great to show them around.”

Stone and her teammates are excited to get back on the road to Bloomington and believe it may not be their last stop this season.

“That is what we look forward to, those moments on the bus, those moments on the plane, wherever it is,” said Stone. “We just like to be in each other’s company and spend time with each other. We are really excited. I think we have it in us, we are a super competitive group. We know that we have to play our best and we are at our best right now, playing our best basketball so I think we really have a chance to make noise.”