March 20, 2024

Mitchell Helps PU Women’s Hoops Roll to Ivy Title, Tigers to Face West Virginia in NCAA 1st Round Clash

FOR THE RECORD: Princeton University women’s basketball player Ellie Mitchell, left, hauls in a rebound in recent action. Last Friday, senior forward Mitchell had 12 rebounds to help top-seeded Princeton defeat fourth-seeded Penn 59-54 in the semis of the Ivy Madness postseason tournament. In so doing, Mitchell moved to 1,100 rebounds in her career, the most in Princeton history, male or female. A day later, the Tigers defeated second-seeded and host Columbia 75-58 in the final. Princeton, now 25-4 overall, will be playing in the NCAA tournament where it is seeded ninth in the Albany 2 Region and will face No. 8 West Virginia (24-7 overall, 12-6 Big 12) in Iowa City on March 23. The winner will take on the victor of No 1 Iowa and No. 16s Holy Cross/UT Martin who play a First Four game in the second round. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

With the Princeton University women’s basketball team clinging to a 57-54 lead against Penn in the Ivy Madness postseason tournament last Friday, Ellie Mitchell put her body on the line to help the Tigers.

Princeton senior forward Mitchell hustled to the baseline and took a charge from Jordan Obi, sprawling to the floor as the Tigers regained possession. Madison St. Rose went on to make two free throws for Princeton to close the deal in a 59-54 win.

For Mitchell, the three-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, leaving it on the floor was business as usual for her.

“At the end of the day, no matter how the game is going, we are going to grit it out,” said Mitchell, a 6’1 native of Chevy Chase, Md. “We are going to have each other’s backs. We are going to trust in our defense and that is what got it done.”

Showing her grit, Mitchell pulled down 12 rebounds in the win. In so doing, Mitchell moved to 1,100 rebounds in her career, the most in Princeton history, male or female.

“It is really special, it is cool to have my name in conversation with all of the greats who have come before me,” said Mitchell, who surpassed the previous mark of 1,099 held by Margaret Meier ’78. (The legendary Bill Bradley ’65 holds the men’s career record with 1,008.) “It is also a team accomplishment in a sense, it is not a one-player job.”

A day later, Princeton defeated second-seeded and host Columbia 75-58 in the final to win its fifth straight Ivy Madness title and earn the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.

“The last game that we had there, we didn’t play very well and lost by two (67-65 on February 24),” said Mitchell, who had a double-double in the title game with 12 points and 10 rebounds as the Tigers improved to 25-4 overall.

“Columbia is a great team. It wasn’t our best basketball before with Penn so we came back and focused. It is always about us. We wanted to give our best effort and play the way we are capable of. It was really exciting. Defense always fuels our offense, we got stops. We were all on the same page, shooting the ball well. Everyone was firing on all cylinders.”

To open play in the NCAA tourney, the Tigers will head to Iowa City, Iowa, where they are seeded ninth in the Albany 2 Region and will face eighth-seeded West Virginia (24-7 overall, 12-6 Big 12) in a first round contest on Match 23. The victor faces the daunting prospect of a second round matchup two days later against top-seeded Iowa and its record breaking superstar Caitlin Clark, who will play the victor of No. 16s Holy Cross/UT Martin who are playing a First Four game.

Beating Columbia on its home court in the final to earn the Ivy Madness title was a good test for the Tigers heading into the NCAAs.

“It is really special, it is really great to be able to continue the legacy from the past,” said Mitchell. “It never gets old. Our fans were great, we had a huge turnout. That made a big difference. It is tough to play in that gym, they always pack it with a lot of fans.”

In reflecting on Princeton’s success this winter, Mitchell cited the squad’s ability and unity.

“I think it is really unique that we are such a young team; we have so much talent and they are very confident and composed,” said Mitchell. “Sometimes it takes years for that to develop. Our team is very close. We have great team chemistry, we have a lot of a fun. You play your best basketball when you are playing with your best friends. It makes it easy.”

Mitchell is hoping to have fun on a return trip to Iowa as Princeton lost 77-75 in overtime to the Hawkeyes on November 20, 2019 during her first college season.

“My freshman year we played at Iowa, actually that was our only loss that season,” said Mitchell. “It was just me and the coaching staff because everybody is gone now. It was a good game. I don’t know much about West Virginia. We are both close in the seeding, it should be a good game. We are excited, it should be a good atmosphere.”

Winning NCAA first round games the last two seasons, topping Kentucky 69-62 in 2022 and N.C. State 64-63 in 2023, the Tigers can draw on that experience this weekend in Iowa City.

“It is different because a lot of these girls are young and are necessarily in the roles that they were in the past or they are freshmen,” said Mitchell. “Being able to look back on what we achieved in the past is a boost of confidence. Ivy League basketball is great, we can handle these big programs. Anything is possible, it is March. Our staff does a great job, they are all over it. They are really good at preparing us.”

With Princeton falling just short of advancing to the Sweet 16, losing second round nail-biters to Indiana in 2022 (56-55) and Utah in 2023 (63-56), Mitchell is hoping the Tigers can take the next step.

“We have had games in the past where we have had ups and downs throughout the game,” said Mitchell. “We need to piece together a full 40 minutes. On defense, we all have to be on the same page and communicating. We are at our best when we are sharing the ball, any one of the five can score.”

Princeton head coach Carla Berube acknowledged that Penn gave the Tigers a hard game to start their postseason run.

“They were aggressive, they were tough,” said Berube. “They just made it really difficult for us. It was hard playing them days after we had faced them. They made some big plays down the stretch and cut it to three.”

Mitchell’s toughness down the stretch helped Princeton pull out the win.

“Ellie takes a charge, the timing of that one was pretty big, that is the Defensive Player of the Year,” said Berube. “That wasn’t our best game. But to survive and move on and play in the championship game, we just got it together on Saturday in a timely fashion.”

Berube sees Mitchell’s rebound record as a testament to her intense play.

“It is an amazing accomplishment, deservedly so that she is now at the top of the record books here,” said Berube. “She is that blue collar worker. She puts her body on the line defensively for rebounds, for loose balls. She impacts the game in so many ways. You just want that kind of player on your team that is going to get you extra possessions and is going to fight tooth and nail for every defensive board so your opponent doesn’t get those second chance opportunities. I am really proud of her.”

The performance by the Tigers in the win over Columbia in the title game made Berube proud as well.

“We just locked in on Saturday morning during shootaround, during film,” said Berube, whose senior guard Kaitlyn Chen was named the Most Outstanding Player of Ivy Madness and was joined on the All-Tournament Team by sophomore guard St. Rose. “I saw in their eyes that they wanted to win this championship. Everybody just played really, played together. The defense was clicking, we were communicating well. We were sharing the ball well on offense. We were not as patient and poised on Friday, we turned that around on Saturday.”

Winning the program’s fifth straight Ivy Madness title was special for Berube.

“It is so exciting, it is our third as a staff,” said Berube. “It says a lot about the legacy that we have here. Many great teams have come before this team, you want to keep winning. There is that tradition of excellence within our program, but also within Princeton athletics. It never gets old. It is an amazing feeling to cut down those nets.”

Berube has had an amazing experience coaching this year’s group.

“They are just a lot of fun to be around; for our sophomores, juniors and seniors who started this journey in Barcelona and Greece in August, they have been together for quite a while,” said Berube. “Then we added this amazing freshman class. We haven’t skipped a beat. They are a lot of fun to coach, they work really hard at practice every day. For the young players, I think the upperclassmen really take them under their wing and just mesh really well together. It is a joy to coach them every day.”

Continuing that journey in Iowa City will be fun for the Tigers.

“We are excited to be back there, we were there our first year; it was a tough game, we were right there at the end,” said Berube, whose team will get a tough challenge in the first round from a West Virginia squad that averages 74.6 points and causes 24.0 turnovers a game and spent nine weeks in the Top 25 this season. “We will get to know West Virginia here quickly. They play in the Big 12. We have a common opponent in Oklahoma that they have played.”

The potential matchup against Iowa and national sensation Clark, who has scored the most career points, male or female, in NCAA history, with 3,771 and is averaging 31.9 points a game this season would be a bit of a reunion for Berube.

“I got to coach Caitlin Clark with USA basketball back in 2017, she was 14 or 15 on the under-16 national team,” said Berube. “It is exciting. She is one of the best basketball players in the country and the world. What she has been doing for this game has been amazing. I am looking forward to hopefully getting the chance to play her.”

Princeton’s first round success under Berube gives it self-belief heading into the weekend.

“It is preparation, confidence, you know how to get the job done,” said Berube. “We won’t let the moment be too big for us. We are just excited to get out of the Ivy League and play somebody else. It will be quite a challenge, but we are looking forward to that. We have had success but we are not going to rest on what we have done in the past. The lessons that we learned, the experience, and how it all goes helps.”

In order to make the jump to the Sweet 16, Princeton needs to stay in the moment.

“I don’t think it is any one thing with the matchups, Utah was a really great team and two years ago Indiana was amazing,” said Berube. “It is not something that we need to do differently, it is just stick to who we are and be as prepared as we possibly can. It is make sure if we do get past the first game to rest up and be ready for that second game if we are lucky enough to get there.”

Michell, for her part, is prepared to put it all on the line. “This is my last go, it is bittersweet,” said Mitchell. “A lot of teams don’t get this opportunity, so we are very grateful for that and very cognizant of it. Obviously I want to stretch it out as long as I can. I think everyone feels the same way. We have worked really hard throughout the year. We are looking forward to it, I think it will be good.”