March 18, 2023 

‘Toughness transfers over’: Princeton uses familiar script to beat NC State in NCAA Tournament

In an Ivy League first, Princeton wins NCAA Tournament opener for second straight year

With No. 10 seed Princeton trailing No. 7 seed NC State 63-61 with 11 seconds left in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, Tigers head coach Carla Berube drew up a familiar play. Ivy League Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen inbounded the ball on the sideline and got it back, and a hammer screen by freshman Madison St. Rose freed up senior guard Grace Stone on the 3-point line.

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Stone and the Tigers had executed that same play to force overtime against Columbia on Jan. 6, and Stone again drained the 3-pointer on Friday, giving Princeton a one-point lead with four seconds remaining.

“She’s clutch,” senior guard Julia Cunningham told reporters postgame.

Princeton sprung the 64-63 upset to advance to the Round of 32 in back-to-back seasons — a first in Ivy League women’s basketball. It was Princeton’s 16th straight win this season after starting conference play 0-2 for the first time since 2016-17. The Tigers did a lot of things right on Friday, but the most impressive part was that they didn’t need a new scheme or surprise play to unseat NC State — they simply did what they always do, down to their final shot.

Princeton was confident entering the game, leaning on its experience of upsetting No. 6 seed Kentucky and falling by a point to No. 3 seed Indiana in 2022. And despite playing in an arena that looked like it could be NC State’s, with a sea of red seats and logos for the host Utah Utes, Princeton raced out to a 6-0 lead, reminiscent of its 16-0 run to start the 2023 Ivy League Tournament semifinals against Penn.

The Tigers also rattled off a 10-0 run to open the third quarter, on two 3-pointers from Stone and two tough shots from Chen, to take a 45-41 lead. But then they missed 15 straight shots over the next eight and a half minutes, and then missed nine of 10. They got the win anyway because of three familiar factors: defense, grit and steady senior leadership.

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Momentum-changing defense

On NC State’s first possession, Stone set the tone by drawing a charge on Wolfpack wing Jakia Brown-Turner. Princeton took four charges in total and drew another offensive foul on a moving screen, and it felt like even more.

“Those [plays] fire us up; those are momentum-changers,” Berube said postgame. “We needed to do that. They’re fast and they were big and strong, and so we needed to … slide our feet and just get good position … Those were huge for us.”

Spearheading the defense was two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Ellie Mitchell, a 6’1 forward tasked with guarding 6’3 Mimi Collins, 6’3 Camille Hobby and 6’5 River Baldwin at times. Collins had eight of NC State’s first 10 points but only six thereafter, and Hobby and Baldwin combined for just nine on 3-for-7 shooting. Two-time WNBA Coach of the Year Dan Hughes, broadcasting the game and wearing a dark tie with large orange basketballs on it, called Mitchell “one of the finest defensive players and rebounders in college basketball.”

One of Mitchell’s best defensive plays jumpstarted the Tigers’ third-quarter run. She hedged beyond the 3-point line to slow a Wolfpack guard’s drive, then recovered to deflect a post entry pass out of bounds. The Tigers forced a turnover on the ensuing inbounds pass, which set up one of Stone’s five 3-pointers on the night.

Mitchell finished with five steals, four blocks and 11 rebounds, breaking her own Princeton record for rebounds in a season. “Just Ellie being Ellie,” Berube said. “… She just kept working.”

The Princeton defense found another level in the game’s final 5:44, after NC State took its largest lead at 63-55. Shots still weren’t falling for Princeton, but it held NC State without a point the rest of the way and forced five turnovers. It had done the same thing in both of its Ivy League Tournament wins, winning those fourth quarters 14-7 and 17-4.

“At some point, you get to the end of the game, and we just looked at each other and we were like, ‘All right, they can’t score anymore,’” Cunningham said postgame. “Like, ‘This is our time. This is what we practice.’”

Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell dives for a ball that is rolling toward the camera as five other players trail her.
Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell (00) dives for a loose ball against Harvard during the Ivy League Tournament championship game at Jadwin Gymnasium in Princeton, N.J., on March 11, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Princeton was everywhere

Rebounding had been a point of emphasis for both coaches entering the game, as both teams rank among the nation’s best in rebounding rate. Wes Moore was particularly concerned about Mitchell, who had nearly three times as many total offensive rebounds entering the game as any Wolfpack player.

One fight for a rebound in the second half left Mitchell, Stone and Hobby all flat on the court, their limbs splayed in different directions like starfish. In the second quarter, Cunningham got knocked down after missing a shot, but she tried to crawl to the loose ball several feet away. Princeton’s players expended all the energy they could and then some, even as every starter played at least 35 minutes at high altitude in Salt Lake City. Even Berube was “absolutely exhausted” by the end, she admitted on Saturday, from “jumping around like a maniac” as the momentum ebbed and flowed.

“It just feels a little bit like our Ivy League championship win, where we just had to grind it out and just get really gritty, and [we] just made the plays,” Berube said postgame.

“We’ve shown our toughness throughout the Ivy League schedule, and I think now it’s showing that that toughness transfers over to the national stage,” Stone added on Saturday.

Overall, Princeton forced 20 turnovers, grabbed 13 steals, and got 14 offensive rebounds to the Wolfpack’s six. Many of those extra possessions produced game-deciding plays, including a steal by Stone with 12 seconds left. With NC State leading by two points, the Wolfpack decided to try to score off an inbounds pass rather than let a player get fouled and seal the game at the free-throw line. But Cunningham deflected the inbounds pass, and Stone secured it.

“The [play] that really bothers me,” Moore said postgame, “is the one with about 12 seconds [left], when we had the ball, inbounds pass tipped, and ended up turning it over. … Looking back, I wish I had been more conservative and got it in.”

Seniors rising to the moment

NC State keyed in on Chen, the junior point guard who leads Princeton in both scoring and assists and is so often the answer when the Tigers need baskets. Chen still finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists, but she shot 8-for-25 to get there.

Stepping up around her were the two senior starters and Second Team All-Ivy honorees, Cunningham and Stone. Cunningham, a co-captain, had 14 points, a career-high eight assists, four rebounds and two steals, while Stone had 22 points, five rebounds, four steals and a whopping eight drawn fouls. All three players set new career highs in scoring in NCAA Tournament games, and Stone set her all-time career high in scoring.

Cunningham told reporters on Thursday that she wanted to be “a calming presence” for her team when “the lights are on” in the NCAA Tournament, and that’s exactly what Berube praised her for postgame. She has dealt with a “little bit of a bum shoulder” all season, Berube told The Next this week, but the only sign of it bothering her on Friday was the ice pack she sported in the postgame press conference. Cunningham scored or assisted on 33 of Princeton’s points, and she scored eight points in the first 12 minutes to help Princeton start the game on the front foot.

“She’s so important. I can’t emphasize that enough,” Chen said after the Ivy League Tournament final, pointing out not only Cunningham’s offensive contributions but her ability to be a defensive stopper on the perimeter.

Stone, meanwhile, was the best and most versatile player on the court for stretches. At 5’11, Stone has switched from guard to power forward and back again in her Tigers career, and she guarded anyone and everyone on Friday. And she has always had a knack for the big moments.

She was crucial down the stretch for the Tigers, beginning with a 3-pointer that cut the NC State lead to 63-58 with 3:09 remaining. She then picked off an NC State pass and brought the ball back upcourt, threading the needle on a pass to Mitchell that nearly resulted in a layup.

About three minutes later, Stone’s final steal came, fittingly, with help from Cunningham, and Princeton called timeout to draw up the play from the Columbia game. The Tigers only needed a 2-pointer, but they were comfortable with Stone taking a 3-pointer, St. Rose slipping the screen, or Chen going one-on-one. NC State tried to switch, Moore said, but couldn’t stay attached to Stone, and with the Princeton fans on their feet, the Tigers’ first option delivered.

“I knew what shot we had to get, and when it happened, I blacked out,” Stone said postgame, “and then afterwards, just a bunch of hugs.”

“She’s got ice in her veins,” Berube added about the player she had called “Stone Cold Grace Stone” on the ESPN2 broadcast minutes earlier. “She has that look in her eyes and you know she’s gonna make a play. … NC State did such a great job of just hounding Kaitlyn so much; she wasn’t getting any looks. It was really hard for her.

“And so that’s Grace’s time.”

After Stone’s shot rippled through the net, prompting an NC State timeout, the Tigers had just one thing left to do: Get a trademark defensive stop.

They got it, not even allowing a shot to go up.

When the Tigers came out of the huddle, they recognized the play NC State wanted to run — a left-handed drive toward the baseline by sophomore guard Aziaha James — from watching film. St. Rose, using all that she’d learned from the upperclassmen about playing Princeton defense, cut it off and forced James to bobble the ball. “I think everybody dove on the ball at that point,” Berube said with a laugh.

The buzzer sounded, Mitchell batted the ball away, and the Tigers raced to midcourt. 6’5 senior forward Kira Emsbo repeatedly pointed down at Stone’s head as they celebrated, crediting her for how she’d played. Berube and Stone spoke joyously with the ESPN2 broadcast crew, exchanging a massive hug as the coach handed over the headset.

Leading up to the game, Cunningham had told reporters that what felt different between last season and this season was that “last year, nobody really had any faith that we were going to win,” whereas this year, the Tigers felt more respected. But the Tigers always believed that they could win tournament games — and win them exactly as they are, without changing what made them Ivy League champions.

“We definitely felt like we were in a familiar place last night,” Chen said on Saturday, referencing times when Princeton had to grind out wins earlier this season. “And I think being in that place before and knowing that we could pull it out, as we’ve done before, is sort of — we had that hope. And I feel like when you have that hope, that’s all you really need.”

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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