March 15, 2023

Riding Stifling Defense to Ivy Madness Championship, PU Women’s Hoops Playing NC State in NCAA Opener

DEFENSIVE STAND: Princeton University women’s basketball player Ellie Mitchell defends a Penn player last Friday in the semifinals of the Ivy Madness postseason tournament at Jadwin Gym. Princeton defeated Penn 60-47 and then went on to rally from an 11-point second half deficit to edge Harvard 54-48 in the final a day later. The Tigers, who improved to 23-5 overall, will now head west to start play in the NCAA tournament where they are seeded 10th and will face seventh-seeded N.C. State in a first-round contest on March 17 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

When the Princeton University women’s basketball team lost its first two Ivy League games this season after having won 42 straight league contests, it looked like the setbacks could herald a changing of the guard at the top of the Ivy heap.

But showing resolve, Princeton responded to the defeats to Harvard and Columbia by winning its next 12 league games to share the regular season Ivy title with the Lions. Last weekend at the friendly confines of Jadwin Gym, the Tigers capped their run at the Ivy Madness postseason tournament, beating Penn 60-47  last Friday in the semis and then rallying from an 11-point second half deficit to edge Harvard 54-48 in the final a day later.

Princeton, who improved to 23-5 overall as it posted its 15th-straight win, will now head west to start play in the NCAA tournament where it is seeded 10th and will face seventh-seeded N.C. State (20-11) in a first-round contest on March 17 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In the view of Tiger junior forward Ellie Mitchell, those defeats to start the Ivy campaign served as a wake-up call for the proud program which had won five straight Ivy regular season titles and the last three Ivy tournaments played coming into the weekend.

“I think that was good for us in a way; you can’t take anything for granted, you have really got to work,” said Mitchell. “It is a 40-minute game, there are a lot of ups and downs. We put ourselves in various situations. We know that no matter what the score is, the game is not finished until that last buzzer sounds. We have a lot of trust in each other, we work really well together. I think it is just a lot of effort. We just want to always outwork the other team, that is what we try and do.”

Princeton head coach Carla Berube credited her squad with developing a deeper level of trust as it dealt with adversity.

“When the chips were down in the middle of the season at Harvard and against Columbia and in some of our games in the non conference, we didn’t come together like we are now, so this has been a work in progress,” said Berube. “Just because we saw success last year, it doesn’t just roll over into the next season. It takes time, it takes work to develop the important chemistry that you need and they did that. They come to work and they love to play together, they love the game, no matter what is happening in the game.”

In the final against Harvard last Saturday, the Tigers displayed their game, making a rally reminiscent of regular season meeting on February 24 which saw Princeton trailing 30-20 at halftime before pulling out a 51-47 victory.

In Mitchell’s view, that chemistry and the success down the stretch helped propel Princeton over Harvard in the final.

“We faced a lot of adversity this year so to be able to show up tonight, you never want to leave it to chance,” said Mitchell, reflecting on the final which saw the Tigers behind 32-23 at half and 42-31 midway through the third quarter. “We won the regular season, we wanted to win the tournament so we got it done today and it is really exciting.”

Playing a key role in the win, Mitchell, the leading rebounder in the league with 11.0 caroms a game, got it done at the offensive end as well as on the boards with a double-double of 10 points and 15 rebounds.

“I have said time and again, I am always trying to get better, trying to be more confident,” said Mitchell, who also had a double-double in the semis with 10 points and 12 rebounds and was named to the All-Tournament team. “It goes back to my teammates and my coaches, they have a lot of faith in me. They say shoot the ball, it is going to go in, you make them all of the time.”

In the last minute of the contest, Mitchell hit some big shots as she coolly drained two free throws to give Princeton a 51-48 lead.

“I am walking up to the foul line, I have struggled through my career with foul shots,” said the 6’1 Mitchell, a native of Chevy Chase, Md., who has a career free throw percentage of .470. “We practice situations like this all of the time in  practice. All of my teammates came up to me and said you have got this, just put it in, they are going in. We love you, you have got this. I was trying not to think too much. When I overthink, I get into my head. I had a great end result, so who knows.”

Tiger junior guard Kaitlyn Chen, who also made the All-Tournament team and was named the event’s Most Outstanding Player, never doubted that Princeton was going to get the win.

“I think we did a really good job of coming together in those really important minutes of the game,” said Chen, who had 21 points and six rebounds in the final. “In key points of the game, we look at each other and we know it is time to go. We really play well as a unit.”

Berube, for her part, saw the determination in her players’ eyes as they made their rally.

“It was just like yesterday, you look at them in the huddle and they are looking back saying there is no way we are losing,” recalled Berube. “They stuck together. We relied on our defense once again to get really, really big stops, big rebounds. We found a way to score against a really tough Crimson defense. We had to put it all out there. We were resilient and tough and gritty and all of those things to stay focused and poised, going down 11 in the third quarter.”

In the fourth quarter, Princeton produced a defensive masterclass, outscoring Harvard 17-4 and holding it to 1-of-12 shooting from the floor, employing a full-court press at points to help fluster the Crimson.

“For the most part it was just play together, get the stops we need,” said Berube, reflecting on the message she imparted to her squad. “We needed to move more on offense. We got very stagnant in the third quarter and parts of the second quarter. We have got to just share the ball and make plays for each other and finally our defense woke up. It was so much better, we rebounded better. I do think our press changed the momentum a little bit. We got some turnovers. It was nothing that we haven’t said all year. They just came together at the right time and we pulled that out.”

The scrappy play of Mitchell at both ends helped the Tigers pull out the win.

“I am so happy that she is scoring a little bit; the way she impacts the game on both ends of the floor is just amazing and fun to watch,” said Berube. “I get to watch it every single day in practice because what you see in games is what I see in practices. Sometimes I am like Ellie, ‘stop diving, let’s take care of our body.’ That is the type of player I like to coach.”

With Princeton having upset Kentucky 69-62 in the first round of last year’s NCAA tourney, Mitchell believes the Tigers are primed to give N.C. State a battle when the squads meet in Salt Lake City.

“Last year we put ourselves on the map, I think it was great for Ivy League basketball,” said Mitchell. “It shows that the Ivy League is a real competitive league. We can compete with these big programs. I think we just scratched at the surface of what we can do. We are excited for the opportunity. We are going to give it our all, it is going to be a good fight.”

Chen, for her part, feels that the sting of falling 56-55 to host Indiana in the second round after the win over Kentucky will spur Princeton to a big run.

“We are all super excited,” said Chen. “We got that feeling after losing to Indiana last year, we want to win one more game. We want to be in the Sweet 16. I think we are going to use that and hopefully that will help push us into the next round.”

Berube will be emphasizing the business-like approach that has carried the Tigers to this point.

“We are going to just take it one game at a time, like we do in the regular season,” said Berube. “That experience that we had last year was amazing and there is a lot to build on.”

In Berube’s view, the team’s experience of bouncing back from the rocky Ivy start should serve it well in Utah.

“We talked about climbing this mountain that we started at the bottom in late December and just kept climbing, working and getting better,” said Berube. “Now we are at the peak with both the regular season and the tournament titles. It was certainly different. It was not easy, not that the other two were easy by any means. That makes it really sweet that we came from that point and just came together. It was really important for us to do it together and figure it out together.”