March 23, 2023
Era ends for Princeton, but it remains a program to be reckoned with
'Our nucleus, our glue, our everything'
When the No. 11 seed Princeton Tigers’ season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament a season ago, they sat in their postgame press conference with no tears, just pride and only a twinge of “What if?” after losing by a single point to No. 3 seed Indiana.
The Tigers then used that margin of defeat as a rallying cry of sorts this season: One more.
So when the No. 10 seed Tigers took questions on Sunday night, after falling 63-56 to No. 2 seed Utah in another hard-fought second-round game, players’ voices wobbled. Head coach Carla Berube struggled to finish a sentence about her five seniors and what they’ve meant to the program.
“We feel like we came up short of our goal,” she said in her opening statement.
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Princeton entered the NCAA Tournament with a record of 23-5 overall and 12-2 in the Ivy League. It had won its fifth straight regular-season title and its fourth straight conference tournament and was riding a 15-game winning streak. The Tigers had looked shaky at times early in the season, losing at Texas by 24 and dropping their first two Ivy League contests, but by the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around, the Tigers’ customarily excellent defense was in full effect.
As of mid-December, Princeton ranked 143rd nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions; now, it ranks ninth. It’s the third straight season that the Tigers have ranked in the top 15 in that category as well as opponents’ points per play, opponents’ assists per game, and opponents’ turnover rate.
On the back of that defense, as well as big performances from the seniors and hustle plays, the Tigers beat No. 7 seed NC State 64-63 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
However, despite their excellent résumé, the box score of their second-round game suggested that the Tigers had no business beating Utah.
They almost did anyway.
The Utes raced out of the gates, making five of their first seven shots, and established a 13-point lead early in the second quarter. Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili was dominant, scoring 17 first-half points and finishing with a game-high 28 on 8-for-13 shooting, plus 10 rebounds.
Princeton found its groove defensively, though, as the game wore on, much like it did over the course of the season. By halftime, it had cut the lead to six, and twice in the second half, it got within two points.
The Tigers tried all sorts of strategies to contain Pili, which gave the Utes different looks to adjust to. The Utes average 83.5 points on 8.3 3-pointers made per game, but Princeton held them to just 63 and one, respectively. In the fourth quarter, Utah shot just 2-for-12 from the field.
“They made every possession hard for us,” Utah sophomore guard Kennady McQueen told reporters postgame.
The trouble for Princeton was mainly on the offensive end, as it shot just 27.8% from the field. Ivy League Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen and senior guard Grace Stone combined for 35 points but needed 44 shots to get there. Most glaringly, the team shot 1-for-10 from the field to open the third quarter and 1-for-13 to start the fourth.
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The Tigers made up for it partly with defense and partly with rebounding. They had just 10 total rebounds at halftime but grabbed 29 — 15 offensive — in the second half.
“They kind of crushed us on the boards in that third quarter, the [offensive] boards,” Utah head coach Lynne Roberts said postgame. “That was embarrassing at times.”
At one point, the 5’9 Chen singlehandedly boxed out 6’1 Utah freshman forward Teya Sidberry. Princeton junior forward Ellie Mitchell was everywhere, finishing with 18 rebounds. Ten of those were on the offensive end, including each of her first five. And with about four minutes left in the third quarter, Princeton got four offensive rebounds on the same possession.
That possession closely followed a particularly disheartening play in which a high-low pass from Mitchell to senior guard Julia Cunningham sailed through Cunningham’s hands and out of bounds. Instead of turning straight around to play defense, Mitchell went to Cunningham and wrapped an arm around her.
They and their teammates never quit — even after they couldn’t finish on the fourth offensive rebound, either, and turned the ball over.
“The second that [Mitchell] stepped foot on Princeton’s campus, and I think maybe when she was born, she was born with grit,” Stone said. “That girl puts her body on the line every single day, every single practice, every game. …
“I think that this team is really good because we do the dirty work. We do the work nobody else wants to do, and I’m really proud of us for that because it always keeps us in basketball games.”
“It’s a team standard that we have: It’s a 40-minute game, [and] you’re always in it until that last buzzer sounds,” Mitchell added. “I think we all really buy into it. We kind of feed off of each other. So we’re always gonna fight, no matter how the game has gone.”
Mitchell and Stone battled in the postgame press conference, too, to keep their composure. Mitchell wiped her eyes as she listened to a question, and a leftover tear glistened in the light as she answered. Stone spoke of how the team plays “with all of [its] heart,” and both players occasionally stared up and away, seemingly collecting themselves before they spoke.
Their emotions threatened to spill over because Princeton had expected to win, even though just 10.3% of America agreed. “Utah’s a great team,” Mitchell said. “I think we could beat them.”
Perhaps, too, the emotions bubbled up because the loss felt like the end of an era. It wasn’t just that the season was over. Five seniors would be graduating, up from two last season. “Our nucleus, our glue, our everything,” Berube called them.
The seniors depart with a career record of 97-22, for a winning percentage of 0.815, and a remarkable seven Ivy League regular-season and tournament titles. (It would likely be eight had COVID-19 not canceled the 2020 conference tournament; Princeton won the regular season by four games that year.) They combined for more than 2,400 points, 1,000 rebounds, 650 assists, 400 steals and 150 blocks in just over 8,600 minutes. Cunningham and Maggie Connolly were both two-year captains, Cunningham reached the 1,000-point plateau this season, and Stone hit the program’s first buzzer-beater since 2002 against Rhode Island in December.
Those five players had also played a crucial role by helping Berube acclimate to Princeton when she arrived before the 2019-20 season. They were sophomores at the time, and when COVID-19 threatened the 2020-21 season, they all took the year off from Princeton so they wouldn’t lose a year of Ivy League eligibility. That decision brought them back to Princeton this season, and they have continued to be a resource and a lifeline for Berube. When Princeton opened conference play with two losses, Berube met with them, and guard/forward Lexi Weger — who averaged just 3.3 minutes per game this season but was a vocal leader on the bench — spoke up.
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“The first thing Lexi Weger says is, ‘What can I do, and how can I help?’ And that’s just who they are,” Berube said. “They’re unselfish. They love their teammates. They love this program. … They all have different roles on this team, and they bought into what we needed.”
Sure, Princeton will reload next season, as it so often has over the past 13 seasons. Chen and Mitchell will lead the returners, and Berube is bringing in a six-player recruiting class that ESPN ranked just outside the top 25 in November. The Tigers will likely be a preseason favorite in the Ivy League again. As Roberts told reporters, “It’s not just a good team this year. They’re just a great program: well-coached, disciplined, physical, fearless.”
Yet there was an unmistakable finality as five players’ careers in orange and black ended on Sunday. There would be no “one more.” As Mitchell and Stone rose from their seats at the postgame press conference, yielding the floor to Berube for questions, Berube reached over and rubbed Stone’s shoulder, knowing their time together was up.
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.