March 27, 2024

PU Women’s Hoops Falls to West Virginia in NCAAs as Mountaineers’ 13-0 3rd Quarter Run Proves Pivotal

PRESSED OUT: Princeton University women’s basketball player Madison St. Rose battles to get past a Columbia defender in a game earlier this season. Last Saturday, sophomore guard St. Rose scored a team-high 22 points but it wasn’t enough as ninth-seeded Princeton fell 63-53 to eighth-seeded West Virginia in an NCAA first round contest in Iowa City, Iowa. The Tigers finished the winter with a 25-5 record. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

A major point of emphasis for the Princeton University women’s basketball team as it prepared to face West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament last Saturday was dealing with the Mountaineers’ stifling press.

“It’s certainly going to be challenging,” said Princeton head coach Carla Berube, reflecting on the Mountaineer defense in a media conference last Friday.

“They are aggressive. They’re athletic. They have quick hands. They run that 2-2-1 press and they have a 1-2-1-1 press, and they make it really difficult. It’s certainly been something we’ve been working on to make sure that we have a good plan in place, and yeah, excited for the challenge ahead.”

Executing their plan, the ninth-seeded Tigers looked sharp in handling the pressure early on, making just five turnovers as they took a 26-24 lead into halftime over the eighth-seeded Mountaineers.

“In the first half we took care of the ball really well,” said Princeton senior point guard Kaitlyn Chen. “We really valued every possession and we were able to sort of get into it.”

But in the third quarter, West Virginia turned up the heat on the Tigers, forcing 12 turnovers and going on a 13-0 run as they turned a 29-24 deficit into a 37-29 lead. The Mountaineers never looked back, holding off the Tigers to prevail 63-53.

“They came out with that 1-2-2 at the start of the third quarter and that sort of put a little more pressure on us,” said Chen, who tallied 17 points with two assists in her Princeton finale. “We got a little antsy with the ball and were a little careless with it a few times. I think there was maybe four minutes in the third quarter we didn’t take care of the ball and that was sort of what hurt us.”

As Princeton struggled with the West Virginia pressure, the Tigers started misfiring from the floor.

“And then just we couldn’t score. I think we had some great opportunities, and then yeah, their pressure put us into situations where it was really low shot clock and we were struggling to get good shots,” said Berube, whose team ended the season with a 25-5 record. “I think it was a lot to do with just the West Virginia defense. In the second, I thought there was some late shot clock. Certainly took quite a few at the end just trying to get back in the game. When you’re down 10, you’ve got to make up kind of quickly. So I think a combination. We don’t normally take that many threes, but I think it was a lot to do with their defense and what they were throwing at us that, you know, a lot of them were good looks.”

Tiger sophomore guard Madison St. Rose did hit some shots, ending up with a team-high 22 points.

“I would say my confidence definitely changed from last year to this year,” said St. Rose. “But I can only do that with my teammates like Kaitlyn and Ellie [Mitchell] and
Chet [Nweke], they put so much trust in me to be me and just play confident basketball. I just I feel like without them, I wouldn’t be the player I am today, and just moving forward and thinking about how much we are about to lose, and how much — the amount of, I guess, heart and just, I don’t know, life that these seniors have put into this team, it’s really going to suck. I’m really going to miss them so much.”

For Berube, who had guided Princeton to first round wins in the last two NCAA tournaments, the defeat was painful for the proud program.

“This stings — I didn’t think our season would be over tonight,” said Berube. “But it’s basketball. Things happen. Games ebb and flow and you know a lot of credit goes to the Mountaineers for playing a terrific game.”

While some tough things happened to the Tigers, Berube believes her players will benefit from the opportunity of making another trip to the NCAA tournament.

“Hopefully they are like, wow, this is a great experience,” said Berube of the contest which drew a crowd of 14,324 to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “And you can never take away, being in March Madness and being at this stage, is just amazing. And yes, we lost, but wow, what a season.”

The loss to the Mountaineers marked the final Princeton appearance for an amazing trio of Tiger seniors — Chen, Mitchell, and Nweke.

“I couldn’t be more proud of my entire team, of our senior class in particular, our captains, Ellie, Chet, and Kaitlyn for just giving this program everything that they had,” said Berube. “You couldn’t find three people that care more, that want to be great, that get in the gym and just amazing people to be around. Going to miss them very much. But I think they have left an incredible legacy.”

Chen teared up and buried her head in a towel at the postgame media conference as she reflected on her Princeton experience.

“I mean, playing for Princeton has meant everything to me,” said Chen. “I couldn’t have done anything without my amazing coaches and teammates, and I think that’s what I’m going to miss the most. It’s going to be tough not being able to play with Madi, Elli, Chet — play for coach and our amazing coaching staff. But this place and this program has given me the best three years, four years of my life, and I’ve met such amazing people, and I’m so grateful for that experience. I couldn’t be happier here than anywhere else.”

Speaking in the locker room after the loss, Mitchell was happy with her final Princeton campaign, notwithstanding the final result.

“I’m super proud of our team and what we accomplished this season,” said Mitchell, who pulled down a game-high 15 rebounds in the defeat. “I’m grateful that I got to be surrounded by this group and this staff. Obviously, this one hurts. There are no two ways about it. We had a great first half, but we made a lot of mistakes. West Virginia had a great third quarter. We were resilient and battled hard, but some of those mistakes in the third quarter made it tough to come back from. It hurts to look back at that since it was a lot of controllables. We are proving that Ivy League basketball, especially Princeton, is high level basketball.”

Berube, for her part, believes the Tigers can keep playing at a high level even as they deal with the loss of Chen, Mitchell, and Nweke.

“We have got some great, talented skilled, hardworking players coming back,” said Berube. “Madi is one of them, Skye [Belker] is another, and there’s a great group that we really haven’t seen too much of that I am just absolutely excited to coach moving forward. It’s a great group coming back.”

In the view of St. Rose, there are some great things ahead for the program.

“I’m just looking forward, since we do have a lot of underclassmen, I feel like we learned so much from the seniors,” said St. Rose. “I think what we’ve learned from this season is definitely going to carry over into next season and I feel like we are just going to be more ready and prepared and hopefully we’ll make back to the March Madness Tournament.”