January 24, 2024

Producing Dominant 2nd Half at Both Ends of the Court, PU Women’s Hoops Tops Columbia 80-65 in Ivy Showdown

ON HER TOES: Princeton University women’s basketball player Chet Nweke guards a Columbia player last Saturday. Senior Nweke made her first career start in the contest and contributed nine points and six rebounds to help the Tigers prevail 80-65 over the Lions. Princeton, now 14-3 overall and 4-0 Ivy League, hosts Cornell on January 27. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

Women’s college basketball is currently enjoying a golden age with record crowds, unprecedented television coverage, and the emergence of stars like Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers, and Angel Reese capturing national attention.

Last Saturday afternoon in a microcosm of the buzz around the sport, the Princeton University women’s hoops team hosted Columbia in a clash of Ivy League titans that entertained the raucous crowd of 1,873 braving arctic chill to show up at Jadwin Gym for the spectacle.

With the contest being broadcast nationally on ESPN News and the 2024 NCAA Division I championship trophy on display behind one of the baskets, the rivals, who were tied for first in the league standings, produced a riveting battle which saw Princeton overcome a 37-33 halftime deficit to pull away to an 80-65 win and improve to 14-3 overall and 4-0 Ivy. 

Senior guard Chet Nweke was thrust squarely into the drama of the matchup, making her first-ever career start after 76 appearances off the bench.

“It meant a lot, I found out on Tuesday, I was really excited,” said Nweke. “I don’t mind coming off the bench. I will do whatever I need to do for my team, but getting this opportunity meant a lot to me. I just wanted to take advantage of it so that my team could be successful.”

After getting outscored 21-14 in the second quarter when Columbia made 9-of-11 shots, Princeton seized momentum in the third quarter, stifling the Lions, holding them to 6-of-18 shooting and going ahead 56-51 heading into the fourth quarter.

“We came in the locker room and we just knew that we needed to do a better job of finding people in transition, finding [Abbey] Hsu, finding their shooters, and just matching up better,” said Nweke, who ended up with nine points and six rebounds in 32 minutes of action. “A lot of the times they had four guards that could shoot the three and one post player and we had two post players. So it was different going into the second half, knowing that we needed to pick up earlier and find their shooters so we could match up and not let them get those open threes.”

Getting her first taste of the Princeton-Columbia rivalry, Tiger freshman guard Skye Belker was made aware of the intensity of the matchup.

“I was told before the game a lot about the environment and the history of Princeton playing Columbia,” said Belker. “I tried to put myself in their shoes and take everything that has happened in the past personally so I could really get into that today.”

Belker had a big day in her debut against the Lions, scoring a career-high 21 points with four assists.

“It was just making moves and attacking, we had a lot of talks about getting double gaps and our spacing on offense,” said Belker, who was later named the Ivy Rookie of the Week. “It was knowing when to take those shots and when that gap is there. I know my teammates have confidence in me and my coaches have confidence in me so that let me just shoot.”

Showing her confidence at the defensive end of the court, Belker shadowed Columbia star Hsu all over the court, making life difficult for the three-time All-Ivy performer as she made 8-of-22 shots for a hard-earned 21 points.

“It was definitely not just me, the whole team was guarding her,” said Belker. “In practice, we have our team do what the team we are playing against does, so kudos to them. I got back cut a lot in practice and made a lot of mistakes then. It is good because then I know what to look for in the actual game.”

Sophomore star Maddie St. Rose, who struggled in Princeton’s 58-55 overtime loss to Columbia last year at Jadwin, was on a mission last Saturday.

“Looking back to last year’s game against Columbia and how they celebrated and just how hard they worked, they wanted it more than us; it was kind of upsetting to think about,” said guard St. Rose, who had five points on 2-of-9 shooting in that setback. “So coming into this game, I just felt like I wanted to bring it all for my teammates, whether it be rebounding, whether it be scoring -— in any way possible just help out because I really wanted this win. I don’t like people winning on our home court. I take it personally.”

Proceeding to bring it as both ends of the court, St. Rose scored 21 points in the win with six rebounds, three assists, and three steals.

“It was from what we talked about in practice,” said St. Rose. “They are also a bunch of guards, it was basically one-on-one. Coach (Carla Berube) was like just attack, don’t settle. The shots will come if we just kept attacking. I got a lot of layups and I thought a lot of people got easy layups too. That was my main focus. When it came to shooting, I just shot when I was open and prayed it went in.”

Princeton head coach Carla Berube knew that Columbia was bringing an attacking mentality to the contest.

“Well it just seemed like another Columbia battle,” said Berube. “They are tough and scrappy, they are scorers. They can really spread you out and score in a lot of different ways.”

Berube credited Nweke, St. Rose, and Belker along with senior star Ellie Mitchell, who tallied 14 points with 15 rebounds, passing the 1,000-rebound mark in her career, as showing toughness and skill.

“It was a team effort; Chet, Maddie, and Skye had really great games,” said Berube.  “Of course, Ellie was awesome as well, just taking care of the boards and then she got a lot of dump-down passes and was converting those.”

In the wake of the shaky second quarter, Berube acknowledged that the Tigers needed to pick up their effort in the second half.

“We struggled a little bit in that second quarter; we needed to talk about a few things at halftime and play the way we are capable of playing,” said Berube. “I thought we came out with a lot of energy in that third quarter and then I think we locked down really well in that fourth quarter.”

Nweke gave the Tigers plenty of energy as she finally got into the starting lineup.

“I am a defensive coach and I want to get my best defensive team out there,” said Berube. “Chet has really been playing well on that side of the ball. She was big in our game at Harvard (a 72-49 win on January 13) and she was big in our game at Villanova (a 61-58 win on December 11) when teams can really spread you. I thought she really deserved the start — she came up big. She had a great game, I was really proud of her.”

Berube was also proud of the effort she got from Belker at both ends of the court.

“Skye was great. It is hard, Abbey Hsu works for 40 minutes, the whole time that she is out there, just hunting for shots,” said Berube. “Skye did a really good job, she was always in the vicinity. She shot the ball really well, she attacked really well and made some great decisions with the ball. That was a great, great game for her.”

Slashing to the hoop repeatedly, St. Rose keyed the offensive attack for Princeton.

“If there is a sea that is parting it is like take that; we don’t want to just rely on our jump shots or our 3s or pull-ups,” said Berube. “If we can attack, let’s get to the rim for either a layup or a foul or maybe a dump off pass. They were able to see some lanes. Skye and Maddie and Kaitlyn [Chen], when she was in there, really found those gaps.”

Seeing Mitchell made history as she became just the third Princeton player, male or female, to hit the 1,000-rebound milestone added a special touch to the win. In reflecting on the gritty Mitchell, who was later named the Ivy Co-Player of the Week with Harvard’s Harmoni Turner, Berube cited the forward’s intensity as setting a tone for the Tigers.

“It is pretty amazing, it is just relentless attack, relentless on the boards, defensive boards, offensive boards,” said Berube, noting with a smile that the scrappy Mitchell had a bloody leg under her knee pads. “It is fun to watch her, it is fun to coach her. It has been such a huge part of her game over the four years that she has been playing. It is nice that now offensively she is a little bit better too. She has got this really great game. I am excited for her, proud of her. She surpassed 1,000 sort of early on in the game and now she is on her way to 2,000. She had so many boards today so it was pretty awesome. It is that ‘take your lunch to work’ mentality — she is just a blue collar player, getting after it. You saw her on the floors. It is rebounds, it is loose balls, it is taking charges — the stuff that leads to wins.”

While getting the win over the Lions was heartening, Berube noted that the Tigers have plenty of room for improvement.

“It is a fun battle, it really is,” said Berube. “The environment here was really amazing and we knew it was such a big game. I am proud of the group. It is another Ivy win. We have already turned the page to Cornell for next Saturday. We have to keep on climbing and keep on getting better. We can’t rest on this win, but it certainly is a big one and an enjoyable one.”

Drawing inspiration from having the NCAA championship trophy in the gym, Nweke believes the Tigers can make an impact on the national stage.

“I think this team can hang with anybody, so having that in the back of our heads meant a lot tonight,” said Nweke. “Just seeing it, that is way further down the road. I have faith in this team that we can take anyone.”