March 23, 2024 

‘Her nose for the ball is so special’: Why Princeton’s Ellie Mitchell can’t be stopped on the glass

Mitchell broke Princeton’s 46-year-old record for career rebounds at the Ivy League Tournament

NEW YORK — The moment when Ellie Mitchell broke Princeton’s 46-year-old rebounding record almost seemed anticlimactic. On March 15, in the fourth quarter of an Ivy League Tournament semifinal against Penn, the 6’1 senior forward grabbed a missed Penn layup nearly uncontested. She then took one dribble and passed it to senior point guard Kaitlyn Chen.

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Her rebound to tie Margaret Meier’s record, on the other hand, was a Mitchell special.

About 40 seconds before her record-breaking rebound, Mitchell beat two Penn players and a Princeton teammate to a long defensive rebound. The ball squirted out of her hands, but she again outraced the Quakers and secured it near the sideline. As two Quakers closed in to trap her, she leaped to pass it to Chen, then stumbled backward after taking contact.

Those two rebounds were Mitchell’s last of the game, giving her 12 that night and 1,100 in her career. The latter set the record for Princeton women’s and men’s basketball and moved her into fourth all-time in Ivy League women’s basketball.

“It was really special,” Mitchell told reporters postgame about setting the record. “There have been a lot of greats that came before me, so it’s really cool to have my name come up in conversation with them.”

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As the clock expired on Princeton’s hard-fought semifinal win, the crowd chanted Mitchell’s name, and her teammates patted her on the back. She later found Ellen DeVoe, whom she passed on Princeton’s rebounding leaderboard this season, in the stands and gave her a sweaty hug.

“I’m thrilled for her,” DeVoe told The Next that night. “I’ve been waiting for her to do that. … It’s been a blast to watch her career. She’s set a new standard for rebounding and defense in the league.”

Meier, too, was aware of the record chase from afar.

“It’s time,” Meier, who now goes by Maggie Benchich, told Princeton senior writer and historian Jerry Price before the tournament. “… It’s been there a long time, and I’m very proud of it, especially with how many great teams Princeton has had and how many great players have come through. And if somebody was going to break it, I’m glad it’s going to be Ellie. I love the way she plays.”

Mitchell has averaged 9.6 rebounds per game over her career, including 10.0 or more in each of her three seasons as a starter. She has grabbed around 20% of available rebounds when she’s been on the court in each of her four seasons, which has put her in the 98th percentile or better nationally every season. And she has had at least 10 rebounds in 53 of 116 career games and at least 15 in 18 games.

She’s always been elite at both ends, ranking in the 96th percentile or better in offensive and defensive rebound rate all four years. Before a first-round NCAA Tournament game in 2023, NC State head coach Wes Moore called Mitchell’s offensive rebounding numbers “scary,” pointing out that she had roughly three times as many as his best offensive rebounder.

Mitchell entered her senior season with 819 rebounds, which was already fifth-best in program history. She steadily passed DeVoe, a former First Team All-Ivy selection, and former Ivy League Players of the Year Bella Alarie and Niveen Rasheed, becoming just the second Princeton women’s player to surpass 1,000 rebounds on Jan. 20 against Columbia.

Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell stands in front of Oklahoma center Beatrice Culliton with her arms out. Both players look up, awaiting a rebound opportunity.
Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell (00) boxes out Oklahoma center Beatrice Culliton (0) during a game at the Fort Myers Tip-Off at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla., on Nov. 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Tilley, Intersport)

Growing up, Mitchell was always a strong rebounder, according to Mike McCarthy, whose daughter played with Mitchell in youth leagues before McCarthy coached them both in high school at Georgetown Visitation. Mitchell was the best player on a boys’ team with McCarthy’s son, too, because of her competitiveness and will to win.

“She’s wired different than most kids,” McCarthy told The Next in February. “In 29 years, I’ve had probably four or five girls like her that have this just crazy desire to win and be competitive and leave it all out there.”

And playing with boys was nothing new for Mitchell, who grew up with three older brothers.

“In my family, I’m small,” Mitchell told reporters in January. “And so I got beat up a lot of my life. It made me tougher.”

In high school, Mitchell channeled her competitiveness into several sports. She had nearly 1,500 points and over 1,000 rebounds in basketball and was her school’s Most Valuable Player in tennis. She also used her ball-getter instincts and height to great effect in lacrosse, taking and winning draws for a Visitation team that was ranked in the top 10 nationally.

“She’d get [the lacrosse ball] up in the air, and same thing,” McCarthy said. “She’d go chase it down and just would go after it harder than other people.”

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Mitchell committed to Princeton under head coach Courtney Banghart, but Banghart departed in 2019, ahead of Mitchell’s freshman year. (Mitchell would later take the 2020-21 year off of school during the COVID-19 pandemic to preserve a year of Ivy League eligibility, making her a senior this season.) For Banghart’s successor, current Tigers head coach Carla Berube, having a player like Mitchell waiting in the wings was a gift.

“I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is my people,’” Berube said in January, referencing Mitchell’s effort and grit.

Five years later, Mitchell’s rebounding has separated her in Berube’s mind just as much as her work ethic and toughness did right away. Asked on Princeton’s “Get Stops” podcast where Mitchell ranks as a rebounder among the players Berube has coached in her 24-year career, Berube said, “The very top. … There’s no one better. There’s no one that goes harder after every single rebound. You just want her on the court.”

From Mitchell’s perspective, rebounding is a surefire way she can impact every game, whether she’s scoring or not, and she loves doing it. Chen told The Next in March 2023, “Sometimes it’s like, she’ll be open, but she’d rather me shoot it so that she could rebound. It’s funny.”

The reason Mitchell is so dominant on the glass, despite giving up several inches in some matchups, is a combination of desire and technique. She’s adept at both boxing out defensively and finding angles offensively to get to rebounds. And she works on every possession, constantly in motion to get better position.

“She’s one of the best in the country at it,” Columbia head coach Megan Griffith told reporters in January. “I think what makes her so special is that her feet never stop moving. … You can’t really make contact with her. … Her nose for the ball is so special, but it’s because she carves out space on every rebound. And she just is relentless. …

“It’s a mindset. It’s a mentality. You got to respect it, but you also got to understand you just have to be smart against it. You can’t just match it with sheer force or strength.”

Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell rises to grab an uncontested rebound with two hands.
Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell (00) jumps to grab an uncontested rebound during an Ivy League Tournament semifinal against Penn at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 15, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

“I see her pursuit of the basketball, and there’s not many people in the country that have that type of pursuit,” Harvard head coach Carrie Moore told reporters in January. “And you can’t teach that. That’s just an innate thing that comes with how she plays, and she knows she’s really good at it and has had success doing it and continues to go after it.”

To her teammates, the most impressive rebounds Mitchell gets are similar to her record-tying one. “As she gets it, she’s getting pushed to the ground and almost falling out of bounds,” yet she still completes the outlet pass, senior Chet Nweke told reporters on March 14.

“I try to get in a spot where she can see me, but most of the time she can’t really see me,” Chen added with a laugh.

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Though Mitchell came to Princeton as an elite rebounder already, she has gotten even better over the years. As a freshman, seeing how the senior Alarie stayed strong and calm with the ball amid heavy pressure stuck with her, Mitchell recently told reporters. According to Berube, Mitchell has gotten more adept at reading the flight of the ball and analyzing her defender’s positioning. Assistant coach Lauren Battista also told The Next that Mitchell has gotten stronger, which has helped her win even more 50-50 balls.

Mitchell has had some of her best rebounding performances against top teams nationally. That includes 18 against Utah in the second round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament and 16 against Texas — 12 offensive — as a sophomore. This season, she grabbed 18 rebounds against Oklahoma and 16 against Indiana in a three-day span over Thanksgiving.

“I thought that Ellie Mitchell just totally manhandled us,” Oklahoma head coach Jennie Baranczyk said afterward. “I mean, you talk about selfless. She was awesome.”

Seton Hall also seems to be a favorite target of Mitchell’s, as she had 19 rebounds against the Pirates as a sophomore and a career-high 23 as a junior. When the Pirates held her to nine rebounds this season, head coach Tony Bozzella was ecstatic.

“Ellie Mitchell is a great rebounder. When you rebound the way she can, that’s an elite talent, and we stopped her elite talent,” Bozzella said postgame. “That was doing as good a job as you would with someone who is a great shooter or a great offensive player.”

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)

Beyond Mitchell’s rebounding, she also impacts the game in other ways. She is averaging 5.5 points, a career-high 2.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.7 blocks per game this season against just 1.3 turnovers. She was recently named the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year for the third straight season, and she is one of Princeton’s captains and tone-setters. 

In her career, Princeton has gone 100-16, for a winning percentage of 86%, and she has won four Ivy League regular-season titles and three conference tournament titles. (Mitchell’s first chance at a conference tournament title, in 2020, was canceled due to COVID-19.)

“When she’s on the court, good things happen all the time,” Nweke told reporters in early March.

“She’s their heart and soul. It’s so clear,” Griffith said on Jan. 20, after Mitchell had 14 points and 15 rebounds in a win over the Lions. “She walks down the court. You can see it in her face; you can see in her body language. And she’s been a part of a tradition here from a very young age … so she’s part of that legacy of, [winning] is what we do here.”

Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell stands on a ladder and holds up the piece of the net she just cut down.
Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell holds up her piece of the net after winning the Ivy League Tournament championship game against Columbia at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 16, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Mitchell’s all-consuming effort on the court rubs off on her teammates. She inspires them to play harder, Berube said — and gets on them when they don’t match her intensity. It’s no surprise that her favorite drill is one where players have to race to secure a loose ball, similar to the game “steal the bacon.”

“Ellie sets a standard; that’s what we are all striving to be,” Chen said after the Ivy Tournament final on March 16. She paused, then added, “I mean, I don’t want her bruises or anything like that. But, I mean, she literally sets a standard. … I just try my best to run over there and pick her up after each time [she hits the floor].”

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Because Mitchell dives on the floor so much pursuing rebounds, steals and other loose balls, she wears more padding than the average player, including knee and elbow pads. Former Princeton teammate Abby Meyers once estimated that Mitchell wears through 10 sets of knee pads per season.

Asked whether Princeton tracks how often Mitchell hits the floor, Nweke said, “There should be a stat. I think probably 99% of the game Ellie’s on the ground.”

Berube joked, “It’s just too many [times]. I can’t count that high.”

“When you think about basketball, you think about making shots, right, and you think about getting buckets,” Meyers told The Next in June. “But she completely changed the definition of basketball and what it means to be a good, consistent player. She is the person who’s gonna work her butt off every day [and] get on the floor. … And you can always guarantee that she’s going to be the first to the ball.”

More than anything over the years, Mitchell has been first to the ball off the rim and the backboard. That’s why she now stands alone, in first place across Princeton women’s and men’s basketball, as a rebounder who simply couldn’t be stopped.

The Next’s Howard Megdal contributed reporting for this story.

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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