February 1, 2023

With Nweke Emerging as a Force Off the Bench, PU Women’s Hoops Routs Yale for 6th Straight Win

BENCH STRENGTH: Princeton University women’s basketball player Chet Nweke puts up a shot in a game earlier this year. Last Saturday against visiting Yale, junior forward Nweke tallied 10 points and had five rebounds in 12 minutes off the bench to help Princeton rout the Bulldogs 79-30. The Tigers, now 14-5 overall and 5-2 Ivy League, play at Cornell on February 3 and at Columbia on February 4. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Chet Nweke has had to adjust to become a strong contributor for the Princeton University women’s basketball team.

After the Ivy League did not have a season in her first collegiate year 2020-21, Nweke played in every game of her sophomore season. She picked up the importance of being fully engaged defensively for Princeton head coach Carla Berube and the nuances of the offensive end in college. She did that while moving from starting the season at guard to playing a forward role. And for the first time that she could remember in her entire playing career, she came off the bench.

“I never did that before Princeton,” said the 6’0 Nweke, who was a four-year starter at Stone Ridge School in Bethesda, Md. “I knew coming in, when you go to a school that’s the No. 1 team in the Ivy League, everybody is coming from the best. You’re playing college basketball and everyone was the best player on their respective teams. You’re not going to college and playing with people that weren’t really that good in high school. That’s just the way college basketball is.”

Nweke returned for her junior season this year, and is again coming off the bench. But she’s having a greater impact for the Tigers, playing more minutes, and her statistics are up across the board.

“Chet brings a lot of great energy,” said Berube. “She’s very athletic. She’s got great bounce to her. She also works really, really hard. She’s tough to box out so she’s a great offensive rebounder, a great defensive rebounder, she runs the floor really well. She has great balance inside. She’s able to jump and grab a pass but then get herself set to be able to finish inside and she did that (Saturday) really, really well. She’s long and athletic, the type of player that excels in our defense. She’s been a great lift off the bench for us.”

Nweke had a career-high 10 points and grabbed five rebounds as the Tigers earned a 79-30 win over Yale on Saturday at Jadwin Gym. Yale came into the game with just two losses in Ivy play. Princeton improved to 14-5 overall, 5-2 in the Ivies to sit tied for second place with Harvard and Penn at the halfway point of the season. The Tigers play at Cornell on February 3 and at first-place Columbia (6-1 Ivy) a day later. Princeton has won six straight games – one non-conference game against Hartford and five Ivy games – since losing their first two conference matchups against Harvard and Columbia.

“After the first two losses, we were all determined to be a lot more focused in practice, knowing that we play the way we practice,” said Nweke. “Just being a lot more dialed in and focused and taking a lot of pride in our defense. We know we’re known for our defense and Coach really emphasizes that a lot every day in practice. We shifted our mindset to be a little bit more focused in working on the little things we know we need to do to be more successful.”

Princeton’s defense has been stifling in two of its last three wins. It held Penn to 40 points in a 55-40 win on January 16 and held Yale to 30, including just nine points in the first half. Nweke was one of six Princeton players with at least eight points against Yale. Madison St. Rose remained red-hot with 17 points while Kaitlyn Chen chipped in 11 points.

“We were making a lot of shots, which always helps,” said Nweke, who shot 4-for-7 against Yale. “You can’t win a game without making more shots than the other team. I think we were dialed in. We had a whole week to prepare for Yale. We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game. I think that we were making shots, and talking a lot on the defensive end. Where slip-ups happen is when we’re not communicating or not communicating enough.”

Nweke’s big game further improved her numbers. She is now averaging 4.0 points per game and 3.5 rebounds per game. She had her second block of the season against Yale and has five steals. She is averaging 12.7 minutes per game, has more than doubled her rebounds per game and is shooting 45 percent after shooting 40 percent a year ago.

“This year I’ve made it my goal to be that energy player off the bench,” said Nweke. “Coach says my role is important coming off the bench and giving a good spark to the team. So I really focused on my ability to rebound the basketball, and offensive rebounding and being able to go back up with it strong — I think that’s a really crucial part of my game. And seeing the opportunities to rip and drive. Coach always says you’re a good driver and you can drive in those lanes whenever I have them. I’m working through what I know I can do and how I can help the team more in every game.”

Nweke has developed each year at Princeton. Last year, she leaned on the leadership of Abby Meyers and Neenah Young, last year’s senior captains who both had experience coming off the bench in their careers. As a freshman, she valued the chance to work out on campus in the spring semester to get a taste of the Princeton program’s demands. She has had to shift her mindset since starting her college career in a reserve role.

“It’s definitely more of an adaptation because I know that there are certain things that I can’t really do when I’m on the floor,” said Nweke. “Like I just have to stick to what offense we’re running or what my defensive assignment is for the given game. There’s less room for deviation and I’m not used to that. In high school or before that, you can just basically do whatever you want, especially coming from a high school that wasn’t good really at basketball.”

Nweke isn’t being asked to carry the load for the Tigers, but Princeton relies on her for energy in a forward off the bench. Though she is only 6’0, she has worked hard to use her strengths to her advantage.

“She’s strong and she’s athletic and she works hard,” said Berube. “To be able to defend inside, she just has to use her quickness instead of the length a Paige Morton or Parker Hill has. Grace Stone doesn’t have the height either, but she’s able to be successful defending inside or scoring inside. It’s about timing and on offense at least keeping the defense on their heels and not letting them know when you’re going to shoot and using your pivots well and your fakes well. She has a good feel for it inside.”

Nweke is more confident in her role. She played last year worried about making mistakes that would cost her minutes. Knowing the expectations after going through a season last year has given her a level of comfort.

“There are certain things that my team needs from me,” said Nweke. “It may not be scoring 20 points a game, but it’s affecting the game in a positive way whenever I do get on the court. That’s what I told myself then and what I continue to tell myself.”

Princeton too continues to focus on developing as a team. The Tigers have looked like a better team in recent weeks since starting the Ivy campaign with two losses, something that Berube says wasn’t necessarily the worst for the team.

“We’ve had some really good practices recently and I think we’re building,” said Berube. “I think we’re getting better with each day. We’ve had a couple good defensive games that we’ve been really pleased with lately and hopefully we’re going to keep building on. When you’re playing well on the defensive end, it usually leads to good things on the offensive end.”

Princeton will look for more good things at both ends when it makes a weekend trip to New York. Cornell comes off a win over Brown and will be playing at home.

“It’s a really big road trip,” said Berube. “It’s a tough one because of the distance from us to Cornell and then Cornell to Columbia. But we’ll be ready and ready for the challenge of both games. We have to take care of business on Friday.”

Friday’s game at Cornell could be a trap game but the Tigers can’t be caught looking ahead to Columbia.

“I don’t think we’re taking Friday’s game any lighter than we would take Saturday’s game,” said Nweke. “We go in with the same mentality to each game that we are going to be the aggressors. I think we need to have a big statement game Friday to be able to carry us throughout that Saturday game. It’s the Ivy League. There are upsets that happen. Every game is going to be a competitive game. That’s our mindset right now.”