March 20, 2022
‘Our redemption game’: How star guards, defense and joy helped Princeton topple Kentucky
Princeton was Kentucky's 'poison Ivy' in an NCAA Tournament game for the ages
“Is this the biggest win in program history?” a reporter asked Princeton coach Carla Berube on Saturday after her No. 11 seed Tigers defeated No. 6 seed Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
She chuckled quietly to herself before responding, “I think so?”
“I’ve only been here a couple years, so I don’t have a lot of my own history with this group,” she continued. “But I think on this stage, with the seed we had and beating a Kentucky team [that is] the SEC champion … it’s definitely up there.”
Berube attended the press conference with wet hair and wearing a fresh long-sleeved T-shirt after her team had doused her with water in the postgame locker room. As she tried to explain in her opening statement how her program got its second-ever NCAA Tournament win — and avenged a loss to the Wildcats in the 2019 tournament — she had the two biggest reasons, guards Abby Meyers and Kaitlyn Chen, sitting right beside her.
Meyers and Chen are at opposite ends of their Princeton careers, with Meyers a senior and Chen a sophomore in her first season of college play, but they make a formidable tandem. Chen scored 17 points on 8-for-15 shooting and added four rebounds and two assists, while Meyers had 29 points, five rebounds, one assist and one steal. They combined to shoot 9-for-13 from the free throw line, including several in the final minutes to close out the game.
“I thought we allowed [the two of] them to get downhill and rise up and make some shots,” Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy said postgame. “They made some tough ones. But they are very talented.”
Meyers and Chen can both score in a hurry, but their differences complement one another perfectly in the Tigers’ system. Meyers leads the team with 18.2 points per game, and over a third of her shots come from behind the arc, where she shoots 40.4%. But she also has a strong mid-range game, as she showed with an off-balance, one-legged jump shot with under eight minutes to go that answered a big shot from Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard on the previous possession.
It’s easy to envision Chen filling Meyers’ shoes as leading scorer next season, but she is much more of a driver than a 3-point shooter, averaging 10.5 points per game and getting just 10.8% of her points from behind the arc. She showed off an array of pull-up jump shots on Saturday, including a first-quarter buzzer beater and a high-arching jumper to begin the fourth quarter. She also has countless layups in her arsenal—so many, in fact, that Meyers gushed on March 12 about how Chen showed her “different layups that I did not know existed” when Chen first got to campus.
Meyers’ 3-point shooting creates space for Chen’s driving and vice versa in Princeton’s offense. According to CBB Analytics, they each get more assists from the other than from any other teammate, and over 30% of Chen’s assists go to Meyers. And Meyers recognizes that, publicly thanking Berube for recruiting Chen on March 12 and again on Saturday.
Meyers and Chen are both lighthearted off the court, but they also bring contrasting demeanors on the court that buoy their teammates emotionally. Meyers is the leader, both in scoring and as a co-captain, and her experience and confidence infuses everyone else with confidence and belief. “Any given game, we walk on the court and we feel like we’re in a good place to win this game because Abby’s on the court with us,” Berube told The Next earlier this month.
With many Princeton players experiencing their first NCAA Tournament game on Saturday and the Tigers having blown out most of their Ivy League opponents, Princeton could have panicked on Saturday after several early turnovers. Instead, behind 12 first-half points from Meyers, the Tigers took a six-point lead into halftime, prompting ESPN’s Rebecca Lobo to say that Princeton looked “on point,” “unselfish” and “unafraid.”
Meyers then made three separate trips to the line in the game’s final 28 seconds, sinking five of her six foul shots. Asked what was going through her mind during that stage of the game, she said, “At the end of the day, everything’s going to be okay, especially if we’re up a few in the fourth [quarter].”
Meanwhile, Chen said that she gets her confidence as a young point guard from knowing that her teammates and coaches “have my back” and “will be there if I ever get in trouble” on the court. That surety helps her bring an unmatched joy to the Tigers. Chen is seemingly always smiling—even when she went to the free-throw line with 38 seconds remaining and the Tigers up six points.
“She looks so harmless, right? Always smiling,” analyst Helen Williams said while calling Saturday’s game. “We talked with [Berube] about that and she said, ‘She’s an assassin.’”
“It’s honestly just been so much fun playing with this team,” Chen said. “And that’s what we talk about: We always play to have fun because we enjoy playing with each other and we’re proud of each other’s success.”
The team’s joy was evident on Saturday when Berube and Meyers shared a laugh as they sat down for the postgame press conference. It was evident on Thursday when the team left before sunrise to fly to Bloomington, Indiana. And it was evident on Friday, when Meyers told reporters how the team had gone to “a nice Starbucks” and “had a good walk” around Bloomington that morning. “We’re just trying to take in the moment. It’s special,” she added.
Beyond the joy, clutch free throws and efficient shooting, Princeton won because it stuck to its identity, which is centered around defense. As junior point guard Maggie Connolly said on Friday, “We love getting stops. That’s our thing. That’s our motto. So that’s the plan.”
Princeton executed that plan on Saturday, holding Kentucky to just 35.7% shooting from the field and 26.7% from 3-point range. Crucially, junior guard Julia Cunningham held Howard, a three-time AP First Team All-American, to 17 points on 4-of-14 shooting, and she also took a charge with Princeton up nine in the first half that fired up the Princeton bench and fans.
In the pivotal fourth quarter, the Wildcats shot just 4-for-14 (28.6%), and a steal by Princeton sophomore forward Ellie Mitchell, the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, with under a minute to go forced Kentucky to begin fouling to try to cut into the lead.
“The team defense was good—was great,” Berube said postgame. “It’s hard stopping Howard and [Dre’Una] Edwards and all of their incredibly gifted players and athletes. But we stayed the course and made the plays we needed to.”
Elzy added, “Give credit to Princeton. I thought they were the tougher team today, made some big plays when they had to have them. … We just did not—we could not finish today.”
The Tigers stayed locked in defensively all game, which helped them avoid conceding a big third-quarter run. All season, Princeton has stifled teams in the first quarter, but early in the season, it occasionally had lapses after halftime. Similarly, in 2019, Princeton led Kentucky at half, only to lose the third quarter by 13 points and ultimately fall by five.
“I guess you can say this is our redemption game,” senior Neenah Young said on Princeton’s weekly podcast before the team left for the tournament. “We like our chances.”
“The big thing is we’re not intimidated. We’re not scared of Kentucky,” Meyers said on the same podcast. “We deserve to play them just as much as they deserve to play us. And it’s going to be a great game. …
“Whoever wants it more is going to win it. … The team that that believes more. The team that’s not intimidated, not scared, has the right leadership and has prepared for this moment.”
Princeton was prepared, confident and poised enough to extend its season, becoming just the third Ivy League team and second Princeton team to win an NCAA Tournament game. “This wasn’t an upset in our minds,” Meyers said on Saturday, adding that a lot of people “underestimate how good the Ivy League is at both ends.”
No Ivy League women’s basketball team has ever made the Sweet Sixteen, though, so Princeton could make history with a strong performance against No. 3 seed and host Indiana on Monday. To do that, Princeton will need more defense, big shots, confidence—and joy.
“Just thrilled to get this victory for us, for Princeton, for the Ivy League,” Berube said. “The mid-majors are doing great, and I love 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, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.