Battle-Tested Cunningham Primed for Big Senior Year As No. 24 PU Women’s Hoops Hosts Temple in Opener
LOOKING FORWARD: Princeton University women’s basketball player Julia Cunningham looks to pass the ball in a game last season. Senior star Cunningham figures to be a key performer for Princeton his season. The Tigers tip off their 2022-23 campaign by hosting Temple on November 7. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
Julia Cunningham is accustomed to big expectations with the Princeton University women’s basketball team.
The stakes feel even higher for the senior and her Tiger teammates, but maybe it’s only from the outside after they became the first Ivy League team to garner an AP preseason top-25 ranking. Last month, Princeton was selected as No. 24 after returning all but one starter from last year’s 25-5 team that reached the NCAA tournament second round. They face a loaded non-conference schedule that begins with them hosting Temple on November 7.
“Looking at the rankings is great, and we’re making history in that regard, but I think we take that in and appreciate it for the time being, but then we realize it puts a big target on our back going into non-conference play,” said star guard Cunningham, a 5’11 native of Watchung. “It means a lot for teams to beat a Top 25 team. Looking at it from that perspective, I think it also makes us pretty hungry and competitive.”
In the first week of the season, they will host Temple and then Villanova on November 11. They are focusing on a strong start and trying not to look ahead to marquee matchups at Texas on November 27 and at UConn on December 8. Seven of the non-conference games will send Princeton on the road, starting with a test at Seton Hall on November 14.
“It’s another really tough one but that’s what we want to do,” said Princeton coach Carla Berube, who guided the Tigers to a 25-5 overall record and 14-0 Ivy League last winter on the way to winning the Ivy postseason tournament and upsetting Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament before falling to Indiana in the next round.
“We want to play against the best that we can and really see where we’re at. Through tough games, it shows where your weaknesses are so we can be where we want to be come March. Just starting with Temple and Villanova and Seton Hall, they’re all really strong teams and programs so we’re going to be tested early on. That’s what we want. We want to be battle-tested so we’re ready for the Ivy League and beyond. We’re looking forward to it. I’m sure people are looking at UConn and Texas but we’re looking at Temple and that’s all that matters.”
Cunningham, a first-team All-Ivy selection last year as she averaged 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds a game, is one of four starters that return along with regulars Kaitlyn Chen, Grace Stone, and Ellie Mitchell. All of them averaged at least 29 minutes per game last year. Princeton only graduated one player who saw any time last year, but it was an important performer in Abby Meyers who is finishing her college career at Maryland as a graduate transfer after leading Princeton in scoring and three-pointers and getting named as the Ivy Player of the Year.
“We have a great foundation and losing Abby obviously leaves some points on the board for people,” said Cunningham, who will serve as a captain for the second straight year. “I think it’s also a really great opportunity. We have really great scorers and I think this season you’re going to see a very balanced scoring front. I think there’s going to be a different leading scorer every game, kind of just depending on what defense the other team is playing, who they’re focusing on. I think those are the hardest teams to play. You have to pick your poison – what are you going to give up? Points on the inside, points on the outside. In that regard, it’s going to be really balanced.”
Princeton doesn’t need many points to stay in games because of Berube’s emphasis on defense. The Tigers were fourth in the country last year in scoring defense at 51.5 points per game, and their defensive efforts remain a huge point of emphasis as part of their winning formula.
“I think you can’t really change what you do, you can’t change what got you to where you are,” said Berube. “You still have to have that underdog mentality, that chip on your shoulder mentality, and be competing every day whether we’re going against each other in practice, or in the first game, or you’re going against Texas or UConn or whoever, we have to have the same mindset. They know to come in every day with great energy and ready to work and get better. We’re certainly not in the form we need to be to be successful. It’s about getting better every day and taking steps forward. We’re not talking about the rankings, anything like that. We’re staying true to who we are and what’s made us successful.”
Princeton’s returning veterans give them a great starting point to the year. The Tigers have hit the ground running in the fall preseason. They feel better about their starting point than a year ago when they returned from not having a season in 2020-21 due to COVID-19 pandemic.
“Coming back from the COVID year, it was almost like everyone was a freshman,” said Cunningham, who took a leave of absence from school during the 2020-21 school year to preserve a year of eligibility. “This year, we have this foundation, we have a lot of players that played a lot of minutes last year and I think starting with that foundation it makes it easier for everyone to learn. The first and second years benefit from that as well. It shortens the learning curve a bit and makes things a little easier than coming back to basically a new system after COVID.”
Even with a lot returning, the Tigers could see increased contributions from some players that have improved since last year. Some younger players stand to earn increased playing time with a strong start to the season.
“A Paige Morton is going to step up into a bigger role,” said Berube. “Chet Nweke as well could be in a bigger role. And maybe a Parker Hill. Some players that didn’t get as much time but with the work they put in this summer and in the preseason they’ve made some great gains. So we’re looking forward to seeing what they can do for us.”
Three new first-year players will also face the challenge to break into the rotation for the Tigers. Forwards Tabitha Amanze and Taylor Charles and guard Madison St. Rose are the lone additions to the Princeton roster this season.
“I think you might see some freshmen impact,” said Berube. “We’ll see exactly who and what they can bring. It’s certainly a veteran team with a lot of returners but I do think there’s room for first-years to step in and make a great impact.”
The veterans, too, are expected to be a year older and better. They will help make up for the loss of Meyer’s gifted scoring.
“Everyone has to pick up a little bit more than they did last year and that’s what they want to be striving for anyway,” said Berube. “You don’t want to be stuck where you were last year. You worked really hard this summer and in the offseason to be better. And I think they really have elevated their games.”
Their experience can’t be overlooked. The veteran core led by the seniors Cunningham, Connolly, Kira Emsbo, Stone and Lexi Weger is a big part of the reason Princeton is a dangerous team, one that has earned national attention. They haven’t lost an Ivy game since February 8, 2019 (a 96-86 defeat to Yale), and will be trying to push the Tigers to a fifth straight Ivy championship.
“They have been here a long time; they were here the year before I got here and I feel like I’ve been here a long time,” said Berube. “They’re awesome. They know how this all works and how it works at Princeton. They’ve been great role models on the court and off the court for their younger teammates. They’ve had a huge influence on our program. We’re heavy into putting a lot of onus on our leaders, that this is their team and they’ve done a fabulous job of keeping us together and on the right track and working really hard in the weight room and on the court. They’ve been amazing. There are five of them and they are sort of the face of the program.”
Their senior season already has a great starting point with the historic top-25 ranking to open the year. With a tough non-conference schedule, they have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves and deliver a special season.
“Even when I came in as a freshman there were always high expectations and really lofty goals we’d set for ourselves as individuals and as a team at the beginning of every season,” said Cunningham. “That just comes with the personalities you get of Princeton student-athletes and the coaching staffs we’ve had. In that regard, not much has changed.”