March 13, 2022 

‘I love a good rivalry’: How the Ivy League Tournament final foreshadowed even more to come

Princeton wins again, but much of the league is young and primed to build on tournament experience

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. – “This is your time to shine. This is your platform, your spotlight. Show them what you’re made of.”

That’s what Princeton senior guard Abby Meyers told sophomore point guard Kaitlyn Chen before Princeton’s two Ivy League Tournament games this week. And Chen delivered, scoring a career-high 30 points in the championship game to help top-seeded Princeton beat second-seeded Columbia 77-59 and secure an NCAA Tournament berth.

Chen was extremely efficient, shooting 9-of-13 from the field and 11-of-14 from the free-throw line, and added three rebounds and three assists against just one turnover. In her first season of college competition, she was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, and Meyers joined her on the All-Tournament team after averaging 19 points per game.

“She’s a rookie, but she plays like a veteran,” Meyers said of Chen after Saturday’s championship game. “… She just balled out this tournament.”

“She’s just really blossomed a lot, taken over the reins of the team at the point guard position,” Princeton head coach Carla Berube said on March 10, reflecting on how Chen didn’t become a starter until the tenth game of the season. “She works extremely hard watching film, in practice, outside of practice, and she just wants to be great.”

Despite the score, the win wasn’t easy for Princeton. It won the first, third and fourth quarters by just six points, and Columbia cut a 12-point halftime lead to single digits four separate times in the second half. But twice, Chen hit shots to push the lead back to double digits, and her 13 fourth-quarter points were ultimately the difference.

“They are really hard to guard. So many great, skilled players,” Berube said of Columbia afterward. “They play well together and they’re tough. They rip balls from us. They are relentless on the boards, and so a lot of credit goes to that program and Coach [Megan] Griffith, what she’s doing with them. But we got our [NCAA] ticket punched and we are just thrilled.”

When the final buzzer sounded and rainbow streamers fell from the rafters, the Princeton players celebrated near the top of the key. They cheered and hugged like they hadn’t been there before—which many of them hadn’t, even though the Tigers program has been a perennial power over the last dozen years. The Ivy League canceled the tournaments in 2020 and 2021, so Princeton has not won a tournament title since 2019.

So the players cherished the moment, lying down in the streamers and jumping up and down in big, bouncy groups. Junior guard Julia Cunningham put streamers in her hair, and sophomore Ellie Mitchell and junior Kira Emsbo wore them like feather boas on their shoulders. Mitchell and Meyers kissed the trophy, which was so big that Meyers had trouble deciding where to stash it when she brought it to the postgame press conference. And the team relished the chance to cut down the nets, chanting “MVP! MVP!” when Chen’s turn came.

Princeton guard Julia Cunningham climbs the ladder to cut down a piece of the net after winning the Ivy League Tournament on March 12, 2022. (Photo credit: Jenn Hatfield)

Through it all, music played over the loudspeakers, including, fittingly, DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” shortly after the nets were cut. It was Princeton’s 42nd consecutive Ivy League win, dating back to February 2019.

When the party finally stopped, the players went to their locker room to retrieve their belongings. Several players then came out and sat in the stands—“I don’t want to get on the bus,” one said, not wanting the moment to end.

The good news for the Ivy League is that, as good as this tournament was, with thrilling finishes and players rising to the occasion, it is also just the beginning. The league is young this season, with relatively few seniors across the eight teams, and inexperienced, as many players also have less college experience than their class year would suggest after the league canceled the 2020-21 season. Even the four Ivy Tournament teams combined to start only three seniors, and the championship game featured just one senior starter.

“We haven’t had the postseason experience,” Griffith said on March 10, the day before the semifinals. “… This is monumental for Columbia women’s basketball to be in this situation.”

As a result, this year’s tournament could be the table-setter for even better games to come, as players like Chen and Columbia sophomore Abbey Hsu—another All-Tournament team selection—continue to refine their games. Yale and Harvard return the bulk of their rosters, and another budding Ivy League star, Brown’s Bella Mauricio, watched the tournament from the stands, eager to see what level she and her team need to reach.

“Yale’s going to be good for many, many years,” Bulldogs head coach Allison Guth promised on March 10. She praised freshman forward Grace Thybulle, who has played just 5.2 minutes per game this season behind All-Tournament team selection Camilla Emsbo. “Grace Thybulle is unbelievably talented and skilled … But I think what makes Grace Thybulle even more special is that she’s committed to the process,” Guth said. “… It’s the reason why tradition never graduates.”

Harvard’s Kathy Delaney-Smith said it was crucial for her team to qualify for the Ivy League Tournament as the next step in its development. “Each game, each practice, we get more and more experienced,” she said. “… But the experience to get into this tournament, to lay the foundation for next year for these young players … just being in this tournament is fabulous for us.”

This edition of Ivy Madness could also be kindling for a new rivalry between Princeton and Columbia, which were the top two teams this season and could be even stronger in the next few seasons. Arguably the biggest separator between them this season was that Princeton has an established winning culture, whereas Griffith is building one in real time at Columbia (based in part on what she learned from working at Princeton for six seasons).

“[Princeton] has won a lot. … So there’s a different kind of culture that they have been experiencing,” Griffith said. “At Columbia, we haven’t won at all. … [We] don’t know yet what it’s like.”

Griffith has said throughout the season that her players look to her to set the tone and be their leader, a role that she can more than capably fill. But Princeton is at a point where players can look to each other for that. As a result, the Tigers are consistent and unrelenting, outscoring Ivy League opponents by 27.0 points per game in the regular season.

Princeton guard Abby Meyers (standing) brings the Ivy League Tournament championship trophy to the postgame press conference on March 12, 2022. (Photo credit: Jenn Hatfield)

Meyers seemingly always has the answer, whether it’s scoring herself or steadying the team with her quiet confidence and swagger. Junior point guard and co-captain Maggie Connolly is a leader off the bench, and she has embraced her role in preparing Chen for her star turn this March.

“She’s such a great teammate, a leader, a captain for a reason,” Berube said of Connolly. “And she … is just so smart and so steady and strong with the basketball and makes great decisions. And so she’s such a huge part of our team, but I think the biggest thing that she did is just give Kaitlyn the confidence and the wherewithal to figure out how this all works in being a successful Division I point guard.”

That experienced leadership can be the difference in a close game, as Columbia saw on Saturday in losing to Princeton for the third time this season.

“I think that we just kind of froze a little bit,” Griffith said on Saturday after the final. “… We haven’t quite grown to the point where [the players] can fix things on their own and adjust in real time. … Another year is really going to help us for this exact moment.”

Even though the Lions have had a program-best season and were underdogs on Saturday, they were unwilling to accept a moral victory against Princeton. They came in believing that the third time would be the charm if they played their best, and they stewed postgame because they didn’t play at that level.

“All season long, this is what we had our eyes on,” Hsu said. “And it’s not a shock that we’re here. We, just like Coach said, we didn’t show up [tonight]. So it’s not like, ‘Oh, we made it here. We’re satisfied.’ No, we had our eyes on this all season. Just got to be better.”

In the Ancient Eight, the road to getting better nearly always goes through Princeton. On Friday, Harvard’s Kathy Delaney-Smith said that she thinks this year’s Princeton team “is by far the best” of recent elite Tigers teams—better even than the 2019-20 team that finished 26-1 and boasted top-five WNBA draft pick Bella Alarie.

“They’re in great shape and the stars are aligned for them and they get it done,” Delaney-Smith said after her team nearly pulled off an upset for the ages. “They have five scorers on the floor. So we’ve tried some junk defenses against them, but it’s pretty tough to do that against a team that all five players can score. … When they go to the basket, they don’t miss.”

Princeton women’s basketball celebrates its Ivy League Tournament championship on March 12, 2022, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo credit: Jenn Hatfield)

If Columbia can grow to challenge Princeton consistently, this could be a potent rivalry for years to come. It’s not quite there yet—in part because Columbia hasn’t beaten Princeton since March 2008. And although the fan bases both traveled well for Saturday’s game, waved pompoms and rally towels, and dressed their children in tiny tiger costumes or shades of blue, they seemed to be feeling one another out, not actively detesting each other.

But Griffith pledged that “this is obviously not the last time” that her own talented rookie, Kitty Henderson, would play in an Ivy Tournament final. “I think you’re going to see a lot of great competition between Columbia and Princeton in the future, and I’m personally really looking forward to that,” she said. “I love a good rivalry. And I think that … we are right there.”

“I think it could be a really good rivalry for a lot of years,” Berube added. “And yeah, looking forward to that. So many great players on that court. And I think it speaks volumes to just how great Ivy League basketball is.”

The 2022 Ivy League women’s basketball tournament clearly showcased the league’s talent, from the dominance of its undefeated champion to the strength of challengers such as Columbia and Harvard. But it also revealed that this season was the appetizer for a basketball feast over the next several years—and that the conference is poised to compete in March not just with this year’s Princeton Tigers, but perhaps with multiple teams in seasons to come.

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 and FanSided.

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