November 29, 2023

Feasting Over Thanksgiving at Big-Time Florida Event, Princeton Women’s Hoops Goes 1-1, Moves into Top 25

ROSY OUTLOOK: Princeton University women’s basketball player Madison St. Rose dribbles upcourt in recent action. Last Thursday, sophomore guard St. Rose scored 24 points to help Princeton defeat No. 20 Oklahoma 77-63 in the Elevance Health Women’s Fort Myers Tip-Off. Two days later, St. Rose chipped in 11 points in a losing cause as the Tigers fell 72-63 to No. 19 Indiana to wrap up play in the Fort Myers event. The Tigers, now 4-2, made it into the Associated Press Top 25 poll this week, getting ranked at No. 25. In upcoming action, Princeton hosts Seton Hall on November 29 and plays at Rhode Island on December 3. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

A Top-20 win for the Princeton University women’s basketball team made the team’s Thanksgiving feast taste all the better.

The Tigers enjoyed a holiday meal together last Thursday in Florida after defeating No. 20 Oklahoma, 77-63, earlier in the day in the first game of the Elevance Health Women’s Fort Myers (Fla.) Tip-Off.

“It was great,” said Princeton head coach Carla Berube. “It was fun playing early in the afternoon and then we had a big Thanksgiving feast with the whole team and the families that were there. It was really nice. It was fun to all be together for the holiday and getting a big W on top of it.”

Princeton dropped the second game of the tournament, 72-63, to No. 19 Indiana on Saturday to move to 4-2 overall. The Tigers will be home for the first time since their season opener when they host Seton Hall at Jadwin Gym on Wednesday.

“It feels like we have not been at home for a really long time,” said Berube, whose team moved into the Associated Press Top 25 poll this week, getting ranked at No. 25. “We were at Tennessee and UCLA and Florida. So it’ll feel really good to be back in the friendly confines of Jadwin. We’re looking forward to the challenge of Seton Hall. They compete. They are usually very athletic, they get after it, they get out on the break, and they have some really skilled players that we’re going to have to deal with.”

Seton Hall, which defeated Princeton at home two years ago, is another test in a challenging early non-conference schedule. After Saturday’s game, the Tigers have the third-ranked strength of schedule in the country. The Tigers took a No. 3 UCLA team to the wire in a 77-74 loss the week before the Florida tournament where they split a pair of Top-20 games.

“We definitely wanted to challenge ourselves with the schedule,” said Berube. “And then also go to California and get a home game for our LA area players. Competing with UCLA and having the opportunity to win that game certainly gave us really great experience. It showed that we can compete with anyone. We brought that confidence to the Oklahoma game and trip to Florida. That’s what we play these games for — to see early in the season where we’re at and get the experience we need against these high quality teams to get us ready for March. We have a lot of young players and first-years that are getting some time. You can’t get that experience unless you’re in a game with those kinds of athletes and programs and so that’s why we schedule these Top 25 teams.”

Last Thursday, Princeton pounced on Oklahoma early. The Tigers bolted out to a 23-7 first-quarter lead, still led by nine points at halftime and increased their lead to 16 points going into the fourth quarter. Sophomore guard Madison St. Rose was two points off her career-high with 24 points to lead Princeton. Senior guard Kaitlyn Chen scored 20 points while freshman Skye Belker gave the Tigers a third player in double figures with 12 points. Senior forward Ellie Mitchell starred in the paint, grabbing 18 rebounds.

“We came out ready to go, really great energy,” said Berube. “We got some stops. They’re a transition first team, so they really like to get out on the break and make plays. We were able to defend that really well and get out in transition ourselves so we got some great scoring opportunities. Everyone was contributing. Maddie St. Rose had a great day. And Kaitlyn certainly had a great second half offensively, but a great full-team effort and win against a quality opponent in Oklahoma. I think it was definitely our defense to start the game and I think it just fueled some easy scoring opportunities down the other end.”

The start and outcome were very different against Indiana. The Hoosiers jumped out to a 41-24 halftime lead thanks to an early first-quarter run followed by a dominant 25-13 second quarter. The Tigers clawed back to make it 58-52 in the fourth quarter before falling by nine points. Chen paced the offense with 16 points while Mitchell and St. Rose had 11 points apiece.

“It wasn’t the way we wanted to start, and our second quarter really put us in a tough spot, a big hole to try to dig out of,” said Berube. “But we’ve been down before and I know that my team is resilient and tough and I know they’re going to keep fighting to the very end. We cut to six in the fourth quarter so we’re right there, we just needed to get a couple more stops and get some scoring opportunities. Indiana is just tough. They have an All-American center inside and a couple really great perimeter players. It was tough but a great experience and we’re definitely going to learn a lot from it, from watching film and just keep taking steps forward. It was a different type of game for us, but I’m proud of the fight we showed to the end.”

The Tigers are three weeks into games with this year’s group. There are familiar pieces like Chen and Mitchell and key reserve senior Chet Nweke all helping to lead the less experienced players. They are part of the reason that Princeton has no qualms about facing tough competition, and have picked up where they left off. Mitchell, for instance, ranks third nationally with 12.7 rebounds per game.

“I think we’re always going to schedule Power 5s and Top 25s when we can,” said Berube. “Of course, having Kaitlyn Chen and Ellie Mitchell on your team, you feel comfortable and confident because you have them leading the way and showing the younger players how to play, how to compete, how to be focused and ready to play at that level game in and game out no matter who’s at the other end of the court. We have to bring that strong mentality game in and game out.”

The Tigers have also seen a huge jump from St. Rose. The sophomore comes off a strong freshman year in which she was starting and hit her stride midway through the year. In her first six games last year, she never even reached double figures. She’s scored over 20 points in three of her first six games this year, and her 17.7 points per game leads the Tigers (Chen is second at 17.0).

“She’s put in the work,” said Berube of St. Rose who averaged 8.8 points a game last season. “She worked really, really hard this offseason and summer. She gets in the gym a lot and works on her shot, her go-by moves, her takes at the rim. She has that confidence now that I think she was feeling at the end of the Ivy season last year and even more so at the start of this year. She’s a scorer. She has a scoring mentality. She’s a deep 3-point range shooter, great pull-ups, finishes at the rim, she’s going to the right really well this year. It’s been fun. She’s been a great court leader and also a great leader off the court too. I’m pleased and proud of her progress.”

The Tigers graduated some key seniors, but a strong freshman class has made an early impact. Belker has been a starter since day one for Princeton and was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Week for her play in Florida. Fellow newcomers Mari Bickley and Ashley Chea also have played significant minutes. Playing some tough opponents early has forced them into the fire.

“I think it can serve us really well as the season progresses that these players are getting really important minutes and doing really well,” said Berube. “There are a few others on my bench that I have to get in games because we’re really deep here. I’m excited for those players. Playing these tough teams absolutely gives them experience that they’ll need for the Ivy League and hopefully in March if we’re fortunate enough to be playing then. I’m pleased with how they’re coming along, and it’s a credit to my leaders and captains. They’re really showing them the way.”

Berube believes the Tigers are as deep as ever. She’d like to show that on game days, but it’s been difficult to go as deep as she would like when Princeton is trying to knock off some high-level teams.

“There are really talented players on my bench,” said Berube. “We’re excited for the games coming up, and they’re challenging games. We’re hoping to go a little deeper than we have been because there are players that deserve to be out on the court. We’re looking forward to the next few weeks before the holiday break and finals break.”

Berube is always mindful of how the Tigers can improve defensively. One thing that jumps out in the early going is opponents are shooting 35 percent from 3-point range. Last year, Princeton held teams to 28 percent from beyond the arc. Indiana made 50 percent from 3-points range in its win over the Tigers.

“I think we need to do a better job of defending the 3 and finding those lethal 3-point shooters,” said Berube. “I think the defense for us, it’s going to take a little bit of time to develop that chemistry on the defensive end. You think of chemistry a lot of times as offense and how it’s working but we feel that way, and I feel that way on the defensive end too that it’s going to take a while to be running on all cylinders, especially with some newcomers and people playing different roles than last year. We’ve got a lot of work to do to be where we want to be come March. But the team puts in the work and they’ll be back ready to go (Monday) afternoon and we’ll be working on our defense every day like we always do. But it’s definitely a work in progress.”

The graduation of Julia Cunningham and Grace Stone, two of the team’s top defensive players last year, has left the Tigers with some work to do at that end. Cunningham and Stone were outstanding one-on-one defenders, strong communicators, and good team defenders. They usually drew the top assignments last year, and Princeton is having to find their replacements.

“On the defensive end, you definitely feel that they’re not there,” said Berube. “I think we have the personnel and people and competitors that can get us there. It just takes a little bit of time. Maddie can do it. Skye Belker is also a good defender, so it’s a combo of them right now. They’re just getting better and better. That was Julia (on the top guard) and Grace had the 4 player that was really, really good. But we always have Ellie, but her playing the 4 more this year is putting her in a different condition. She’s learning the ropes as well.”

The Tigers are using their non-conference schedule to find their players’ roles. Princeton will return to the road at Rhode Island on Saturday before coming home for two of their last three games before the exam break.

“Rhode Island, we’ve played them the last two years and they’ve been really close games,” said Berube. “We lost to URI at URI two years ago. Tammi Reiss does such a good job with her squad in the A10. They’re really skilled, athletic, and have toughness. It’s a tough place to play up there. That’s going to be a challenge and another road trip for us. We’re looking forward to another couple games against some tough opponents.”

The first six games have enabled the Tigers to start to evaluate how good they can be this year. Early returns are positive, and as the group comes together more with more time on the court and off the court together, Princeton is optimistic that more improvement will come.

“I’m pleased with where we’re at; the two games we did drop were great games against two of the top teams in the country, Indiana had fallen to around 20 because of their loss to Stanford, but that’s a top 10 team as well,” said Berube. “I like my team a lot. I like working with them. They’re really gelling well off the court, which has been fun to watch. You really get to work on coming together when you’re on road trips because you’re spending so much time together. It’s fun watching that. I think that translates to the court. We’re excited for the next couple weeks here to get ourselves ready for the real season which is the Ivy League season. I’m happy where we’re at and we’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of room to grow.”