September 25, 2023 

What Princeton saw and learned in Spain and Greece this summer

‘It was like family vacation plus a little bit of basketball’

When Princeton head coach Carla Berube played at UConn in the mid-1990s, she took two foreign tours, one with the Huskies and one as part of a BIG EAST all-star team. Those trips took her to Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland.

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This summer, Berube got to take her own team on a foreign tour for the first time in more than two decades as a head coach. From Aug. 19 to 29, the defending Ivy League co-champions visited Barcelona, Spain, and Athens, Greece — “two sort of bucket-list cities for me, my staff and our team,” Berube told The Next.

The Tigers were the only Ivy League team to travel this summer after Columbia went to Morocco and Spain in 2022. They had originally planned to travel in 2020 and considered going last summer, but they decided to wait another year in hopes that COVID-19 would be less limiting.

In Barcelona, Princeton visited the Sagrada Família, a historic but unfinished Catholic church that is one of the city’s most famous sites. The Tigers biked through downtown Barcelona, spent time at the beach and took a catamaran tour. In Athens, they toured the Acropolis, the Parthenon and Olympic Stadium. They also visited nearby Corinth and the Corinth Canal, a major shipping route that the emperor Nero first tried to create in the year 67 AD, and traveled by boat to the islands of Hydra, Paros and Aegina.

Berube’s favorite parts were the boat rides, while senior Chet Nweke was awed by the Acropolis, despite the many stairs involved. “So many parts of it [were great],” Berube said. “It literally could not have gone any better.”

Wearing fresh uniforms with a Greek-inspired font, Princeton played three games against Catalonia Elite, Olympiakos WBC and Terpsithea Glyfadas. The Tigers had gotten a week of practice before leaving for Europe, a luxury for Ivy League programs that ordinarily cannot practice in the summer.

The practice time was perhaps especially helpful this summer, after Princeton graduated five seniors from a team that gave No. 3 seed Utah all it could handle in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The returners played only 59% of Princeton’s total minutes last season and scored 63% of its points, down from 82% and 71%, respectively, entering the 2022-23 season.

NCAA rules didn’t allow Princeton’s freshmen to practice or travel this summer because they hadn’t started classes yet. But, in the practices before the trip, the returners picked up where they’d left off at the end of the spring semester, focusing on defense and transition offense.

“I don’t even know how many times we did transition drills,” Nweke told The Next. “… I think we learned maybe three plays that we didn’t even actually end up using very much when we were [in Europe]. It was just transition, five-out, just spacing the floor and playing.”

That emphasis on transition could be huge for Princeton this season. Last year, the Tigers were customarily elite defensively, ranking in the 98th percentile nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions and the 87th percentile in points scored off turnovers. Yet they ranked in just the 43rd percentile in fast break points per game, suggesting that they didn’t score much in transition even when turning over their opponents.

“The biggest takeaway is that, when we defend the way that we know we can, we’re actually very, very good in transition,” Nweke said about the three games overseas. “… We had key, important things that we should work on before each game that Coach would write up on the whiteboard, and pushing the ball was No. 1, and —”

Nweke paused, then corrected herself. “No, actually getting stops was No. 1, obviously. The offense is never the No. 1 thing.”

For her part, Berube was encouraged to see players who haven’t gotten major minutes in their Princeton careers play well on the tour. She particularly praised Nweke, a 6’ guard who has averaged about 11 minutes per game in the past two seasons.

“We’re really looking for her to step up into some bigger shoes [and a] bigger role,” Berube said. “So she had a really great week. I think she probably stood out the most.”

Princeton guard Chet Nweke is shown in mid-air, about to shoot the ball with her right hand, as a defender arrives too late to contest.
Princeton guard Chet Nweke (25) shoots during a game against Catalonia Elite in Barcelona, Spain, on Aug. 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Princeton Athletics)

Before the tour, Nweke spent her summer in Philadelphia, interning at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and living with reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen. The senior guards pushed each other and developed their chemistry, anticipating that they’ll share the court more this season. Nweke worked on her shooting and driving abilities as well as her mental approach. She wants to avoid overthinking and looking too far ahead and focus instead on “being still and being in the moment.”

“When we were in Europe over the summer, I made it a big [point] to just have fun and not think too much,” Nweke said. “… [Berube] makes it a big part for her to just kind of keep encouraging me and telling me that she knows what I can do. So it’s up to me to understand that … [and] go out there and do it.”

Now back on campus, those extra practices and games have helped Princeton start fast in the preseason.

“Any time that you can get together with your team and practice and play games and get closer and work on your chemistry, you’re probably further along than others that aren’t doing that,” she said. “Does it mean wins and all that? That remains to be seen. But I think it was a really great opportunity.”

The hope is that the experience will “springboard us into this next season,” Berube said.

At the same time, though, the trip had a tie to the past: Graduated seniors Maggie Connolly and Julia Cunningham joined the returning players in Europe. (Their other classmates were invited but unavailable.) They didn’t play much in the three games, but their teammates loved having them there. It felt like “one last hurrah,” Nweke said, after she’d thought that the seven-point loss to Utah would be her last game with that class.

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Beyond the basketball benefits and sightseeing, the players used the trip to bond up and down the roster and with the rest of the traveling party, which included Berube’s parents, wife and children. The team bonding opportunities felt different than on campus, Nweke said, because there were no competing obligations.

“We were with everyone on our team for probably, honestly, 24/7,” she said. “We had some alone time, but during our alone time … we would go out with the team and go on a walk or go sightseeing or walk to the grocery store or something. So it was really fun because I think when we’re on campus here, obviously I see everyone on my team a significant amount, but we don’t necessarily always get the time to just be relaxed and all on the same wavelength … I’m close with everyone on my team, but that trip made me probably five times closer with everyone.”

The players also flocked to Berube’s three elementary-age children, Parker, Caden and Brogan. And the feeling was mutual: After the first few days, Berube’s kids consistently joined the players in the back of the team bus. Everyone participated in a paella cooking class in Spain, which doubled as a pregame meal, and the team’s tour guide even bought Brogan a flamenco dress and accessories, which led to her dancing in front of the team.

“Some of my favorite parts were watching my kids hanging out with my players,” Berube said. “They’ve done it a little bit over the course of the last couple years, but this was 10 days of a major immersion into sort of my work life.”

“It was like family vacation plus a little bit of basketball,” Nweke said.

Berube and Nweke agreed that the trip was unforgettable, and both used the word “grateful” as they looked back on their 10 days in Europe. Hopefully, the experience will help the Tigers on the court this season, but they already know what it meant to them off the court.

“Being together and having those experiences together, they’ll never forget that,” Berube said. “I think about my trip [as a player] very, very fondly and often, and I hope that they do that as well … Basketball can take you to amazing places.”

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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