January 10, 2024

After Juggling Basketball, Tennis in High School, Freshman Belker Starring for PU Women’s Hoops

SKYE’S THE LIMIT: Princeton University women’s basketball player Skye Belker guards a foe in a game earlier this season. Last Saturday, freshman guard Belker tallied eight points along with three assists and two rebounds in her Ivy League debut as Princeton defeated Cornell 79-38 in its league opener. The Tigers, now 11-3 overall and 1-0 Ivy, play at Harvard on January 13 and at Dartmouth on January 15. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Skye Belker hasn’t put down her tennis racket for good, but her athletic attention is fully on basketball now that she’s joined the  Princeton University women’s hoops squad.

Belker grew up playing both sports along with volleyball. She went 29-0 in the regular season in her final season of tennis at Windward High in Los Angeles before shifting her focus to the basketball courts for the Tiger women’s program. Last Saturday, Belker scored an efficient eight points with three assists and two rebounds in 19 minutes in her 14th straight start as Princeton routed host Cornell, 79-38, in the Ivy League opener for both teams, improving to 11-3 overall and 1-0 Ivy.

“The whole thing is super exciting,” said the 5’9 Belker. “Everything is new. Our non-conference games, there’s a lot of traveling for us. There’s a lot as a freshman, and I’ve heard we don’t normally travel that much. It was a huge adjustment to make. It’s been so fun coming to the gym every day. We have long practices, but we make them fun for each other which makes the game fun and exciting to play.”

All 15 Tigers were rewarded with minutes against Cornell. Madison St. Rose scored 20 points and Kaitlyn Chen, who recently passed the 1,000-point milestone,  added another 15 points to her career total while also supplying seven assists and five steals. Ellie Mitchell pulled down 10 rebounds. Princeton burst out to a 20-6 first quarter lead and never looked back on the way to the victory.

“There’s definitely a huge difference,” said Belker, reflecting on getting into Ivy play. “We’re definitely a notch up in focus. This is when every single game counts. Coming from the non-conference schedule where we played a lot of games as the underdog, now we’re the ones on top, so we’re making sure we’re focused every game. We’re getting every team’s best play and we’re ready to stomp on them too.”

Princeton will remain on the road, where it has already played eight games, when Ivy play continues. The Tigers are at Harvard (8-6 overall, 1-0 Ivy) on January 13 and then at Dartmouth (6-7 overall, 0-1 Ivy) on January 15 in two of the longer road trips in the conference.

“It doesn’t really matter if we’re on the road or home,” said Princeton coach Carla Berube. “We had a lot of road games in our non-conference schedule and I think we’ve gotten used to sleeping in hotels and just taking care of business on the road in some different gyms and arenas. It’s the way this Ivy schedule has been set and we’re excited to be at Cornell today and we’re excited for the challenges up at Harvard and Dartmouth next weekend.”

Harvard beat Princeton last year in Ivy play before the Tigers took their second meeting and the Ivy League Tournament title to return to the NCAA tournament. The Crimson are coached by former Princeton assistant coach Carrie Moore and handled Yale in their Ivy opener Saturday, prevailing 73-54 over the Bulldogs.

“They’re a strong team,” said Berube of Harvard. “They’ve had to deal with some adversity with some injuries but I think they have their nucleus back now. We’ll watch the film from today. They can score from the outside with some great perimeter scoring threats, and they also have some players that can score in the paint. They’re aggressive defensively. They have some long arms and some length and they certainly posed a lot of challenges for us last season. All the games, all three of them, were really close. We’re excited for the challenge. We’re looking at what’s in front of us and that’s Harvard, but also in the two-game weekend you prepare a little – this weekend is a little different with a day in between Harvard and Dartmouth. I’m sure it’s going to be a great game. We’re excited to get up there Friday.”

Belker has adjusted well to the challenges of Princeton and college basketball, and done so more easily than she did in adjusting to her up-and-down freshman year of high school at Windward. Those struggles though helped mold her into the tougher player that she is today.

“I think my high school freshman year definitely prepared me, mostly on the mental aspect of the game,” said Belker. “So much of this game is mental, so being able to take the voices of doubt away because I’ve already dealt with it is super helpful for me.”

Belker didn’t take long to get comfortable. In her third college game, she scored a career-high 20 points in a 77-74 loss at No. 2 UCLA on November 17, about a 10-minute drive from her home when traffic isn’t bad. It followed an 18-point performance against Middle Tennessee in a 65-60 victory on November 12 and showed quickly how much she could help Princeton.

“That was awesome,” said Belker. “It’s always been a dream of mine to play a game at the UCLA Pauley Pavilion. I grew up watching all of their games and supporting them. It’s kind of fun being on the other side playing against them and then also having a great game in front of so much of my family and friends and past coaches was super exciting too.”

At Windward, Belker scored 1,413 points, had 449 assists, and 417 rebounds. She shot over 43 percent from 3-point range as a senior after she closed out her tennis career with a pair of wins in the CIF Southern Region Championships before falling to a current college player. She also ran track and field and played beach volleyball, but it was tennis and basketball in which she excelled most.

“I played them both at the same time,” said Belker. “I’ve grown up with both of them. I think even while I’m focused mainly on basketball, I’ll always have some love for tennis as well.”

Belker has hit on a few occasions with other Princeton students and played with her dad, a former college tennis player, when she was home on break. She and Mitchell, who also played high school tennis, have talked about but not yet played tennis together. Belker poured her energy into preparing for her first year of college basketball and it has paid off with a starting role from the first game.

“I’m excited for this opportunity,” said Belker. “I trained a lot over the summer because I had set a lot of goals for myself. Starting was definitely one of the goals. I’m really happy that was able to actually happen. Getting chemistry with my teammates and working especially on the defensive end in practice — we know that’s super important to Princeton’s play — doing that has certainly helped.”

Belker is just one of the Princeton players that also played another sport in high school. Among just the starting five alone, St. Rose and Chen both played volleyball and Mitchell played lacrosse and tennis. Berube hasn’t seen Belker play tennis, but has no doubts that her other passion has helped.

“We love recruiting student-athletes that play more than one sport,” said Berube. “She has great lateral quickness, which is probably good for her tennis career. She has a good change of speed. I love coaching multi-sport athletes.”

Belker has utilized her athleticism, training and game sense to average 9.6 points per game, is shooting 87 percent from the foul line and has an almost even assist-to-turnover ratio while averaging 25 minutes per game. She has made an early impact as their third-leading scorer.

“Skye has been great,” said Berube. “Once she stepped on campus, I knew from watching her in high school and in AAU, that she understands the game. She was coached at a really high level and played at a high level and she came in college-ready. She does a great job at both ends of the floor. She communicates really well for a freshman and she has a lot of confidence. She’s a scoring threat, she’s a smart passer, and she certainly makes us better. She handles the ball well. And she has great range on her shot.”

Every player has to make adjustments from high school to college. Belker has had to focus on keeping her body ready for the higher demands of college basketball, and she is finding the balance between getting her schoolwork done and then putting it aside to focus fully during basketball practice and games. 

“When you come in and you know a lot about the game of basketball, it takes some time to get used to Tiger basketball, how we talk about the game, how we coach it, and one thing is she’s very coachable,” said Berube. “She has a great growth mindset. She’s always looking to get better. She’s getting in the gym a lot on her own, watching film a lot. She’s elevated her play by doing those things. Pull-up jumpers, coming off flare screens for shots, defensively even though she’s been a great defender it’s still a learning curve and she’s done a great job.”

Playing a tough non-conference schedule helped her learn on the fly. Belker and the team gained good experience through the first 13 games to prepare for the Ivy season.

“We played a lot of really talented teams and knowing how to deal with end of game situations is really important, especially as a first-year coming in,” said Belker, who is currently averaging 9.6 points and 2.3 rebounds a game. “Also the 40-minute game is a little different than the 32 minutes in high school, so I’m getting my body adjusted to giving it my all for those 40 minutes. I also think the traveling aspect — we were flying a lot, so now being on the road, being on a bus back from Cornell for six hours, it’s not as bad as a six-hour flight over to L.A.”

Belker continues to look at ways to improve. She is working to get her 3-point percentage up closer to what it was in high school. She is also sorting out how to balance her creativity and skillset with what the Tigers are looking for. She is figuring out how she can be at her best in different situations.

“I think just being able to find where I can go off from the plays and where I need to stick to them,” said Belker, who is 13-of-48 (.271) from 3-point range so far this season. “Our coaches always have a lot of confidence in all of us to go and take our shots and so knowing when the crucial time is to run that play to the T vs. when you can go off and be a little more creative. I think that comes with comfort on the court but also over time knowing when the right time is to make those plays.”

Princeton made all the right plays against Cornell. A week of practice together ahead of the start of classes allowed them to focus
together on areas of need as they looked to start the Ivy season right.

“The week was exciting,” said Berube. “It’s nice to just get them in the gym and not worry about them sprinting to the dining hall or class. You can really focus on the team and our chemistry and getting better as a group and as individuals.”

For Belker, that means honing in on how to contribute as much as she can at either end of the floor to complement some of the more experienced returning players. It’s been a good start so far on the one court that will matter most to her over the next four years.

“Right now I think I’m on track,” said Belker. “We got a good win the other day. I feel like for me and for the team, we’re on track for where we and I want to go.”