March 17, 2024 

Princeton, Columbia and the emotional gap of a one-bid conference’s title game

Tigers advance to another NCAA Tournament, while Columbia likely falls a game short for third straight year

NEW YORK — After the buzzer sounded on Princeton’s 75-58 win over Columbia in Saturday’s Ivy League Tournament final, there was a practiced efficiency to how the Tigers celebrated their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The players mobbed each other at midcourt; then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, they slapped the Princeton logo on the ceremonial bracket to stamp their win, distributed and put on championship T-shirts, handed out mini March Madness “tickets,” and posed for a photo.

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From there, they dispersed around their half of the court to hug each other, their coaches and their supporters. Senior forward Ellie Mitchell held tight to the sizeable championship trophy, juggling it with her mini ticket and the streamers draped around her neck like someone who’d done it all before. Freshman point guard Ashley Chea, experiencing the joy of her first NCAA Tournament berth, enveloped Mitchell and the trophy in one big hug.

It looked like the Tigers had done this before because, save for the freshmen, they had. It was their fifth straight tournament title and NCAA Tournament berth, and they’ve also claimed six straight regular-season titles. No Princeton player or coach knows what it feels like not to be the tournament champion, as head coach Carla Berube improved her career record to 6-0 in the Ivy League Tournament.

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“When you get here as a freshman, you look up to all the older girls and what they’ve achieved. So you don’t want to be … that class or that year to kind of break the streak,” Mitchell told reporters postgame, wearing the net Princeton cut down around her neck for the second straight year. “… We want to be back here in this position every year.”

The Tigers won this time around because they overcame an unconvincing showing in Friday’s semifinals to be the best version of themselves on Saturday.

Call it a March special — or just business as usual for Princeton.

After leading by seven points at halftime, No. 1 seed Princeton won the third quarter by nine to blow the game open on No. 2 seed Columbia’s home court. The Tigers ultimately led for all but 10 seconds and stretched their advantage to as many as 19 in the fourth quarter. That dominant performance came against a Lions team that had shared the regular-season title with Princeton and took down the Tigers in the same building three weeks earlier.

“Yesterday, it felt a little frantic. But today, I felt like we were all locked in,” senior point guard Kaitlyn Chen told reporters postgame. “We were like one collective group together, and I felt that calmness and energy from all of my teammates.”

“We didn’t do anything differently than we did for the Penn game. … It was business as usual as far as what we did as a coaching staff,” Berube said. “You can’t make these games too big. This is just the next game that was on our schedule, and [the players] were ready. … They look at those banners up in the in the rafters of [Princeton’s] Jadwin [Gymnasium] and they want another one. And they played really well. I think they were primed to have a game like this.”

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The difference-maker on Saturday, Berube said, was Princeton’s patient ball movement. “We didn’t take the first or second shot that we saw,” she said. As a result, the Tigers shot an efficient 50.0% from the field, including 57.7% in the second half, and had 15 assists to just 10 turnovers.

A prime example of that ball movement came midway through the fourth quarter, starting with a pass from Chen on the perimeter to Mitchell in the post. Mitchell sent the ball to freshman guard Skye Belker, and then the ball swung to Chen and sophomore guard Madison St. Rose. St. Rose drove and kicked the ball to Belker, and Belker did the same, finding St. Rose for an open 3-pointer. Columbia promptly called timeout, and Berube went straight to Belker, putting her hands on the freshman’s shoulders and then patting her head.

Chen finished with 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting and six assists, and she was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for the third consecutive year.

“When you have Kaitlyn Chen on your team, you’re gonna be okay,” Berube said. “… And she was terrific.”

Princeton point guard Kaitlyn Chen sits on the rim after winning the Ivy League Tournament. She joyfully waves the net over her head with her right hand.
Princeton point guard Kaitlyn Chen sits on the rim after the Tigers defeated Columbia to win the Ivy League Tournament at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 16, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

One highlight from the point guard came in the third quarter, when she drove into the paint, faked a shot to shed a defender, and shot a pull-up that bounced on the rim and in. Tigers alumna Grace Stone ’23 — sitting in the stands with several other former All-Ivy League players — held one hand up and then the other, as if to say, “How do you stop that?”

“I wish I could be out there with them, but it’s the best feeling watching those girls jump and scream and celebrate and lift the trophy,” Stone told The Next postgame. “It’s the best feeling to do it and the best feeling to watch it.”

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In her postgame press conference, Berube wore an orange T-shirt featuring a large photo of Chen. It wasn’t the shirt she’d worn to coach the game, but she had truly game-planned for everything, packing an extra shirt so she could change after the celebratory water bath.

But Chen didn’t do it alone: St. Rose, who was named to the All-Tournament team, had 18 points on 6-for-12 shooting, and Mitchell added 12 points and 10 rebounds. Chea rounded out Princeton’s double-figure scorers with 10 points and three rebounds off the bench.

“I think the best part of this is just seeing people like Maddie, [senior forward] Chet [Nweke and] Skye step up,” Chen said. “They haven’t necessarily been in these positions before, and they … shined when it mattered.”

“It’s really special to [win] with the new group each year,” Mitchell said. … To be able to come here, especially after our last loss here, and play today like the way we played, that’s very exciting.”

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While Princeton celebrated immediately after the buzzer went off, the Columbia players put their heads down. They sped through the handshake line and out the gym door toward their locker room as if they were on fast forward. Whereas Berube was damp in her postgame press conference from a water bath, Columbia head coach Megan Griffith and her players’ eyes glistened with tears. The devastation was all over their faces.

The contrast of Princeton’s celebration and Columbia’s pain isn’t unique — it happens every year in mid-major conferences that have this much talent at the top but only get one NCAA Tournament bid. But the contrast was especially stark on Saturday. Despite Princeton’s historical dominance in the conference tournament, Columbia fully believed it could win, and it fell short with its whole season seemingly at stake.

The day started off well for Columbia, with a sellout crowd of over 2,700 screaming fervently even before tipoff. The Lions have had the highest attendance in the conference for three straight seasons, and the game sold out even before Columbia’s seed was confirmed. Lions fans appeared to outnumber Princeton fans by about two-to-one, and they clamored in anticipation over senior guard Abbey Hsu’s every move.

Columbia fans also took every chance they got to boo Princeton — including when a baby dressed in Tigers gear appeared on the video board. They booed Princeton’s cheerleaders, and when a cheerleader threw a free T-shirt into a Columbia section of the stands, the Lions fan who got it summarily chucked it right back.

The crowd stayed engaged throughout, even as Columbia struggled. The Lions committed 16 turnovers that resulted in 17 Princeton points, and their defense allowed 40 points in the paint.

Columbia guard Abbey Hsu stands on the court, looking glum as she glances downcourt.
Columbia guard Abbey Hsu (35) looks downcourt during the Ivy League Tournament championship game against Princeton at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 16, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

“I’m just a bit empty,” Hsu said postgame. “I mean, I feel anger and just, I love playing in a Columbia uniform. … But [I’m] just a little disappointed because that wasn’t Columbia basketball out there.”

The Lions never found a rhythm on either end. Offensively, they made just two of six layup attempts and had seven turnovers in the first quarter, and Princeton’s defensive schemes stifled their normally high-octane offense. And Columbia couldn’t get enough stops defensively, which made it hard to push the pace for easy transition opportunities.

“It kind of just felt like we got outsmarted,” Hsu said. “We weren’t using our heads out there. I believe we have the best coaching staff in the country. They’ve put together the best plan to beat this team, and we as players did not execute and … we let that get in the way of us staying connected.”

After the game, Hsu and junior guard Kitty Henderson were asked about their plan for Sunday and beyond. The co-captains were silent for several seconds, struggling to come up with a path forward.

Columbia guard Cecelia Collins puts her hands on top of her head and half-smiles during a frustrating game for the Lions.
Columbia guard Cecelia Collins (3) puts her hands on her head during the Ivy League Tournament championship game against Princeton at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 16, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Columbia’s heartbreak came in part from not performing to its own high standard. It also came from the very real possibility that this game knocked the Lions out of the NCAA Tournament — just as a semifinal loss did in 2023 and a championship game loss did in 2022. Griffith used the opening statement of her press conference to outline the Lions’ case for a bid: a 23-6 record overall; 13-1 in conference play; winners of 21 of their final 23 games; wins over Princeton, Villanova and Seton Hall; and competitive losses to Duke and Florida.

Last season, she had made a similar pitch to the selection committee, striking a defiant tone as she insisted Columbia was tournament-worthy. But the committee had Columbia as its first team out of the field, and the Lions advanced to the WNIT championship game instead.

This season, Griffith’s speech had similar substance, but it sounded more like a plea, softer but no less passionate. She noted how rarely mid-major teams are in the conversation for at-large berths, in part because of scheduling challenges.

“The NCAA talks about wanting to grow the game, and we just consistently put SEC teams in [the tournament] that are … 15-14,” Griffith said. “… What are we doing for the game? And I think this is the time. The committee, I hope you’re listening. … I try to play any local mid[level] Power Five team or good mid-major team, and I can’t even get them on our schedule. So whose fault is that? It’s not ours.”

“Columbia should be in the NCAA Tournament,” Berube concurred. “… They are a really, really good team.”

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But even more than the pain of potentially missing the NCAA Tournament, the heartbreak that Griffith found hardest to bear was that Hsu might graduate without playing in the sport’s marquee event. Hsu is Columbia’s all-time leading scorer across women’s and men’s basketball, and with her game-high 20 points on Saturday, she moved into third all-time in Ivy League women’s basketball history. Over her four seasons in Columbia blue, she led the program to unprecedented success, including its first two regular-season championships.

As Griffith pivoted from Columbia’s resume to Hsu’s dwindling tournament hopes, she began to cry. Hsu patted Griffith’s leg, wordlessly reassuring her, and Henderson, sitting on Griffith’s other side, choked up as she listened.

“I can’t say enough about Abbey Hsu. She’s one of the best players in the country, and she needs to be seen,” Griffith pleaded. “And I really hope the committee gives her and this team a chance.”

“I’m disappointed in myself, honestly,” Henderson said a few minutes later through tears, “because I definitely could’ve given us more today and Abbey gave us everything, as she always does.”

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Columbia was the first of the two teams to speak with reporters on Saturday. Its devastation seemed to suck the air out of Levien Gymnasium, even with Princeton’s celebrations continuing in the building.

Soon after Columbia exited, the triumphant Tigers arrived, and the mood turned as they filled the room with jokes and smiles and NCAA Tournament optimism. But it couldn’t fully erase a disappointment in the air — a sadness that, in all likelihood, only one Ivy League team would get this chance.

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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