May 9, 2024 

What’s in Storrs for Kaitlyn Chen?

Princeton star chases a national title with post-grad season at UConn

Early in Kaitlyn Chen’s sophomore year at Princeton — her first year competing after her freshman season was canceled due to COVID-19 — she came off the bench to score four points in a road upset of then-No. 25 Florida Gulf Coast. Word got to her postgame that a reporter wanted to interview her, and she poked her head out of the visiting locker room.

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“Me?” she asked in surprise.

“Yes, you!” I said with a smile.

Fast forward to now, and Chen has come a long way. She will graduate from Princeton this month as a WBCA Honorable Mention All-America, a three-time Ivy League Tournament Most Outstanding Player, a two-time First-Team All-Ivy selection and the 2023 Ivy League Player of the Year.

She is also newly a UConn Husky, having signed with the program on May 1 as a graduate transfer to replace the freshman season she lost. Chen is one of five Ivy League seniors so far to commit to a power-conference program for 2024-25 and one of 17 who have done so since 2021.

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Chen and the Princeton staff had known she would have a year to play as a graduate student ever since the 2020-21 season was canceled. Because the Ivy League doesn’t allow graduate students to compete, they also knew Chen would have to play that year elsewhere.

Princeton head coach Carla Berube — a UConn alumna and 1995 national champion — told The Next that she knew Chen could play at the Power Six level during her sophomore year. Then, in her junior year, “it became, she could play anywhere in this country,” Berube said.

As a sophomore, Chen averaged 10.5 points, 3.2 assists and 2.9 rebounds while starting 21 of 30 games. She played particularly well late in the season, with 27 points at Columbia in February, 30 against Columbia in the Ivy League Tournament and 17 in an upset of Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.

Chen built on that success as a junior, balancing her driving layups and pull-up jumpers to devastating effect. She averaged 16.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game en route to Ivy League Player of the Year. She again elevated her game late in the season, averaging 21.5 points in four Ivy League and NCAA Tournament games.

She could well have won Player of the Year again as a senior, putting up equal or better statistics in nearly every category. That included career highs of 4.9 assists per game, 48.8% shooting from the field and 32.8% shooting from 3-point range. And she capped her Princeton career with her third Ivy League regular-season title, Ivy League Tournament title and NCAA Tournament appearance in as many seasons.

“When you have Kaitlyn Chen on your team, you’re gonna be OK,” Berube told reporters after the 2024 Ivy Tournament championship game. “You have someone that is the floor general. She’s poised. … She’s just phenomenal.”

Princeton guard Kaitlyn Chen holds the Ivy League Tournament championship trophy, which looks nearly as big as her head and torso. She and her teammate Chet Nweke are both smiling.
Princeton guard Kaitlyn Chen holds the Ivy League Tournament championship trophy and celebrates with teammate Chet Nweke (right) at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 16, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Chen entered the transfer portal for the 2024-25 season back in September, and she had originally hoped to pick her destination before her senior season started. But she realized she wanted more time to visit schools, so she delayed her decision until after the Tigers lost in the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s really nice to just know,” Chen told The Next, “because I feel like it’s sort of been a dragged-on process.”

Chen’s finalists came down to UConn and UCLA, the latter of which is less than 30 miles from her hometown of San Marino, California. But she didn’t end up visiting UCLA and picked the Huskies days after visiting Storrs.

Berube advised Chen throughout the recruiting process, which is common for Ivy graduate transfers because they don’t have the option to stay. Berube didn’t steer Chen toward her alma mater, but she could tell Chen more about what UConn would be like than any other school, and she talked with the Huskies’ coaches about Chen during the season.

“I wanted her to find the best place for her, and … I didn’t say, like, ‘I want you to go here,’” Berube told The Next. “But of course, underneath, I would love for her to be playing at Connecticut. … It was such a great, for me, four-year experience that I would hope that she’d have that same kind of feeling for the one year that she’ll spend there. … So when she finally decided that was the place she wanted to be, I was ecstatic.”

Chen, a medical anthropology major at Princeton, will get a master’s degree in sports management at UConn. It’s a two-year program that she plans to finish in one year. But she prioritized elite-level basketball in deciding where to play her final collegiate season.

“I wanted to play at a place that is successful and has chances of making it to the Final Four and hopefully even the [national] championship,” she said. Seeing Ivy League graduate transfers before her make Elite Eight runs — including Abby Meyers at Maryland in 2023 and a trio of Ivy alumnae at USC this season — only encouraged her. It “sort of gave me a little bit of hope,” she said, “that I could be successful, too.”

In UConn, Chen found a program that has won 11 national championships, that expressed consistent interest in her and that she felt comfortable with on her visit. She had chosen Princeton in part “because the people here sold me,” and she felt the same way in Storrs.

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On the court, too, there seems to be a natural fit. Defensively, Chen was part of a Princeton team that ranked in the top 35 nationally in each of her three seasons, so that should be a smooth adjustment. It also doesn’t hurt that Berube learned a lot about defense while playing for Auriemma at UConn.

Offensively, the Huskies lost senior point guard Nika Muhl to the WNBA, so Chen can slide right in and run the point. But she can also move to shooting guard at times and play alongside another ball-handler, such as rising sophomore KK Arnold or rising fifth-year senior Paige Bueckers.

“[Chen] just makes her teammates better around her … and she’s been in the big moments and she’s been successful,” Berube said. “So she’ll do whatever they need her to do in whatever role that she’ll need to play.”

“I’m just excited,” Chen said, “to get there and just figure it out.”

Beyond her acrobatic layups, tough floaters and crafty passes, Chen is known for being a player whose joy at being on a basketball court nearly overflows. She will sometimes laugh when she misses a free throw or commits a turnover, and the unexpected reaction can break the ice, relaxing herself and her teammates.

That personality might seem unusual at UConn, where players face the pressure of making Final Fours and winning national titles year after year. But Chen has faced pressures of her own at Princeton, the Ivy League’s perennial power. And her joy belies a competitive spirit that will be right at home in Storrs.

“If you see the way that Paige is or even KK, they’re having a good time, but when it’s time to play, when it’s time to work,” they compete, Berube said. “Kaitlyn loves that. Kaitlyn loves the challenge. She loves to compete, to be successful, so I think she’s gonna love it. I think she’s gonna thrive in that atmosphere. … She’s pretty even keel with the pressure of winning and being successful.”

Princeton guard Kaitlyn Chen and head coach Carla Berube sit at the podium for a postgame press conference. Berube grins and looks down at the table, while Chen looks at Berube and smiles.
Princeton guard Kaitlyn Chen (left) smiles with head coach Carla Berube during the press conference after winning the Ivy League Tournament at Jadwin Gymnasium in Princeton, N.J., on March 11, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Chen will also learn from many people who helped mold Berube: Auriemma, associate head coach Chris Dailey and assistant coach Tonya Cardoza all coached Berube, and assistant coach Jamelle Elliott played with her at UConn. Assistant coach Morgan Valley is Berube’s close friend. Looking at the UConn staff, Chen sees coaches who she trusts, who will push her and who will hold her accountable — just like she had at Princeton.

As Berube prepares to hand off her star point guard to her mentors, she has already drawn a boundary with Auriemma. “I told him not to call me if she’s driving him crazy,” Berube said. “It’s not my fault. … He can call me when she’s doing well, that’s totally fine, but not if anything goes wrong.”

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Chen is eagerly anticipating what lies ahead at UConn, but staring down her last few weeks at Princeton is “bittersweet.” She’s wrapping up her final projects and exams and squeezing in more workouts with the coaching staff.

She hopes to bring lots of her Princeton experience to bear at UConn, including what she’s learned about leadership and the importance of little details.

“And winning,” she added. “I mean, [UConn is] very good at winning, too.”

Chen will graduate from Princeton on May 28, officially closing one chapter of her life. On May 29, she’ll load up all her stuff and drive the 3.5 hours north to Connecticut. It’s all gas, no brakes for one of the Ivy League’s biggest stars as she chases one of the few things she hasn’t accomplished yet: a national championship.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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