January 3, 2023
How Harvard ended Princeton’s record Ivy League winning streak
'A huge win any way you look at it'
On the opening possession of the fourth quarter of Princeton and Harvard’s Ivy League opener on Dec. 31, Princeton junior guard Kaitlyn Chen hit a pull-up jump shot to trim the Tigers’ deficit to four.
“Oof, that’s tough,” Harvard head coach Carrie Moore thought to herself.
“That’s tougher, though,” Moore thought.
The Crimson led by seven after Turner’s free throw and held off the Tigers down the stretch, winning 67-59 in front of a sizable home crowd and a national television audience. Harvard snapped Princeton’s 42-game conference winning streak, the longest in Ivy League history, and handed Princeton its first conference loss since February 2019.
It was the first conference win for first-year Harvard head coach Carrie Moore and the first conference loss for Princeton’s Carla Berube. Berube took the Princeton job in May 2019 and was 30-0 in the Ivy League — across regular-season and tournament games — entering Saturday’s game.
Though Princeton is the four-time defending Ivy champion, the loss was not a seismic upset. Princeton is the second-best team in the conference this season and Harvard is the third-best based on NET ranking; the teams entered the game ranked 52nd and 94th. On Princeton’s “Get Stops Podcast” on Dec. 29, Berube referenced Harvard’s “high-octane” offense and said that it would take “a great defensive effort, great … transition defense, getting out on 3-point shooters, [and] communicating really well” for Princeton to win.
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Her Hoop Stats gave Princeton a 70.6% chance of beating Harvard, but the projected margin was just six points. That is closer than any conference game Princeton played last year except for a five-point Ivy Tournament win over Harvard on the same court.
Yet the loss shattered Princeton’s unprecedented run of dominance, which came at times with an air of inevitability. Only a few current seniors across the league were even around for the Tigers’ previous conference loss. Saturday’s loss also has major implications for the Ivy title race, with Columbia and now Harvard looking like strong challengers. And it could have ramifications for Princeton with the NCAA Tournament selection committee, as it was Princeton’s first loss to a team ranked outside the top 25 of the NET rankings.
“It’s a huge win any way you look at it,” Moore told The Next two days later. “… It’s a huge hump for [the Harvard players] to get over together. … It was a great way to ring in the new year.”
Before Saturday’s game, Harvard hadn’t played since a Dec. 21 victory over Boston University and had played just two games in the previous three weeks due to final exams and the holidays. But the Crimson didn’t look rusty at all, shooting 43.8% in the first quarter and scoring eight points off Princeton turnovers to lead by nine. Senior guard McKenzie Forbes assisted on two of Harvard’s first three baskets, then started scoring herself, finishing the quarter with a game-high 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting.
“Kenzie showed that she’s a senior and she’s been there before,” Moore said. “And she just stepped into that moment so perfectly to start that game, and we needed it. We needed it to just kind of be like, ‘All right, we’re good.’”
Princeton’s final lead of the game came with 7:30 left in the first quarter, and Harvard led by as many as 13 on three occasions in the second quarter. The Crimson’s shooting percentages dipped in the second and third quarters, but they weathered Princeton’s comeback attempts and closed the game by shooting 53.9% from the field and 81.8% from the free throw line in the fourth quarter.
“I thought that was our best 40-minute game from an execution standpoint and from a toughness standpoint all year,” Moore said, “and just, what better timing than that one?”
One player who stepped up in the fourth quarter was junior guard Lola Mullaney, whom Moore has been challenging along with Forbes to use their experience to lift the team’s level of play. Mullaney had made just one shot, a layup, in the first three quarters before sinking back-to-back 3-pointers with under eight minutes left to push the Harvard lead from three to nine.
“We called a play and it was for her and she nailed that thing,” Moore said. “And … I was like, ‘Give it to her again. Run it again.’”
Princeton called a timeout after Mullaney’s second triple, and Forbes raced over to celebrate with Mullaney. She then high-fived Moore and told her, “Great call, Coach!”
Forbes (17 points), Turner (17) and Mullaney (12) all finished in double figures, and Forbes chipped in a game-high five assists. But while most of the attention usually focuses on the Harvard offense — which ranks in the top quintile nationally in points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage — the Harvard defense played a huge role in the upset, too. The Crimson picked up the Tigers full-court and often forced them to play one-on-one in the halfcourt. Princeton had just 11 assists on its 24 baskets and attempted just seven free throws, and only Chen, with 21 points, scored in double figures.
Harvard also outrebounded Princeton 40-39, which was surprising given that Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell ranks third in the country in rebounding average. Mitchell had 14 rebounds, seven of which were offensive, to increase her average to 12.3 per game, but Harvard turned 16 offensive rebounds into 15 second-chance points. That was one of Moore’s keys to the game, along with limiting turnovers and making timely shots.
Most of all, though, there was a belief in the Harvard locker room that Princeton could be beaten. The Crimson seeded that belief last season with the close loss in the Ivy Tournament, and then Moore introduced the motto “Believe it” when she was hired, encouraging her players to believe that they could do great things. Ahead of the game, Moore leaned into the familiarity she had with Princeton from being on the Tigers’ staff from 2008-10 and 2016-19, telling her team that she knew some of the Princeton players well “and they’re human, just like you are.”
Moore also pointed to several top-10 upsets in the days leading up to the game as evidence that anything can happen in conference play and reinforced something she has told her players all season: They play better when they have more practice time to prepare. And Harvard was especially prepared for Princeton, with four days of practice leading up to the game and team-building activities over the past few weeks that were designed to improve their weaknesses on and off the court.
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Those activities included an exercise in which each player had to direct a blindfolded teammate around obstacles on the court, an exercise in which each player had to help their teammate draw a picture without being able to see it, and a dinner with several alums. Allison Feaster, arguably the greatest player in Ivy League history, and Megan Basil Song, the point guard who teamed with Feaster to win three Ivy titles, spoke to the “starstruck” team at the dinner.
“They talked to us and shared wisdom of their championship teams and how they prepared … and just gave us some good spirit heading into that game,” Moore said. “… I think that stuff was extremely valuable.”
The result was the first win for Harvard against Princeton since February 2018, before anyone on either team had enrolled. And it was just the second Harvard win in the series in the past nine years after the Crimson had dominated in the two decades from 1990-2009.
So Moore got a water bath and a dance party in a jubilant postgame locker room, and she was brimming with pride and determined to celebrate. “You work so hard for those moments, so you really have to take the time to enjoy it,” she said in a Harvard highlight video. “And I was ready. I was hoping that they had all the water in the world, and they were hyped and ready to go.”
While the win could be season-defining for Harvard, the loss shouldn’t be for Princeton. There is plenty of time to recover, with 13 more regular-season conference games plus the tournament. Per Her Hoop Stats, Princeton has at least an 80% chance to win 11 of those 13 games, including an 86.1% chance to beat Harvard in the rematch on Feb. 24.
The tricky part is that one of the more evenly projected games is the next one, against Columbia at home on Jan. 6. The Tigers have a 62.7% chance to win, but if they don’t, they could find themselves 0-2 and playing catch-up for a chunk of the season.
“To start off the season with first Harvard and then Columbia is tough,” Berube said on Princeton’s podcast, “but it’ll show us where we’re at … To start off with two of the tougher teams can really help us in the long run.”
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The Crimson, meanwhile, have Brown and Yale on the horizon and a signature win in their rearview mirror. They made a statement to the 1,278 fans in attendance on Saturday — over 300 more than had attended any of the women’s games in last season’s Ivy Tournament. And they made a statement to themselves, raising the bar for their execution on both ends and showing that they could close out games against top teams.
“Our motto ‘Believe it’ has been huge for us all year,” Moore said. “But I think in that particular moment … all the belief that we needed was right there in that locker room. …
“They really believed it and they thought we could do it, and we went out and did it.”
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 and Power Plays.