December 10, 2022
Even in defeat, Princeton’s Carla Berube savors ‘awesome’ UConn homecoming
There was pride on both sides as Berube and Princeton gave UConn all it could handle
STORRS, Conn. – On Thursday night, the public address announcer at Gampel Pavilion introduced the starting lineup for the visiting Princeton Tigers, then raised his voice several decibels to welcome Princeton head coach and UConn alumna Carla Berube home. And the 8,731 fans, many still settling into their seats, clapped vigorously for Berube, though without the full-throated rumble they would unleash for the Huskies’ introductions.
Berube absorbed that love and then almost got herself disinvited from the reunion, as Princeton mounted a late comeback from a 15-point deficit before losing 69-64 to the No. 6 team in the country. It would have been the first time since March 1993 that UConn lost consecutive games and the first-ever win over a top-10 team for Princeton. But Princeton’s two chances to tie the game in the final minute failed before UConn closed it out at the free-throw line.
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Berube, now 47, helped UConn win its first national championship in 1995, launching the dynasty that would win 10 more over the next 21 seasons. A native of Oxford, Massachusetts, she grew up attending UConn games with her mother, and seeing the Huskies play in Gampel made her realize that she wanted to follow her mother and grandfather to Storrs and play in Gampel, too.
Over Berube’s four seasons from 1993-97, she averaged 10.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.0 steals in 24.1 minutes per game. She was an All-BIG EAST Second Team selection as a senior, and she was known throughout her career as a glue player who impacted winning.
“The kid was just a dog,” current Rhode Island head coach Tammi Reiss, who coached against Berube as an assistant at Virginia, told The Next in 2021. “Played hard, just smart … She did everything. Everything no one wanted to do. … She was tough. Very, very tough.”
Though Berube didn’t realize it then, UConn and head coach Geno Auriemma were molding her in ways that would help her as a coach. She developed her work ethic and basketball IQ and learned how much team chemistry and relationships matter. She was extremely quiet early in her career, but as a senior, she became a team captain and took the freshman class of Stacy Hansmeyer, Shea Ralph and Paige Sauer under her wing.
“I just embraced it. Loved it,” Berube told reporters on Tuesday about leading the 1996-97 Huskies. “And maybe that was my first taste of coaching.”
After graduating, Berube played professionally for two seasons in the American Basketball League, then transitioned to coaching, starting as an assistant at BIG EAST rival Providence from 2000-02. Providence played UConn three times in that span, including two losses at UConn by 55 and 65 points. “I hope [Thursday’s game is] different than when I was an assistant at Providence,” Berube said.
Berube then spent 17 years as the head coach of Division III Tufts before taking the Princeton job in 2019. Princeton had tried to play UConn in 2020-21, but that fell through because the Ivy League canceled all athletic competition due to COVID-19. The teams also nearly met in the Sweet 16 last season, but Princeton fell to Indiana by a single point in the second round. Thursday’s game, initiated by UConn, was the first-ever meeting between the teams.
“When they asked, we jumped at this opportunity,” Berube said. “… Why not play against the greatest college basketball program that there ever was?”
In part, Berube wanted to schedule UConn to challenge her players and prepare for tight games and hostile crowds in the NCAA Tournament. She also wanted to give her players the experience of playing UConn and playing at Gampel, especially because many of them had grown up watching the Huskies.
Berube, too, still watches UConn — more than any team besides her own. She quipped on Tuesday that she felt like she knew UConn’s tendencies “pretty well” and Auriemma “a little bit, too,” and she was clearly looking forward to her return. She spoke easily and at length with media both before and after the game, even as she tried to emphasize that there was more at stake than a coach’s homecoming.
But the coach’s homecoming was nine years in the making. A snowstorm had thwarted Berube’s attempt to return in 2015 for a celebration of the 1995 team, and it had been nearly a decade — since her oldest child was a baby — since she had been on campus.
“Never in my wildest dreams 26 years ago did I think I’d be back after playing in Gampel and playing for Connecticut, that I would be coaching against the Huskies,” Berube said. “So it’s a little full-circle.”
So Berube savored her moment. Though she insisted there wouldn’t be much time to show her team around, she took advantage of the fact that their hotel was very close to her former dorm, Watson Hall, and provided a mini campus tour on the team’s walk to shootaround. She also squeezed in a run on Thursday morning to Horsebarn Hill, a farm on campus just over a mile from Gampel. She planned to spend more time on campus with her family on Friday before returning to Princeton.
Fittingly, UConn also made Thursday’s game its Throwback Night, featuring retro jerseys and old-school music. Berube’s former teammates Jennifer Rizzotti and Jamelle Elliott were there, the latter as an assistant to Auriemma. Berube and Auriemma greeted each other with a long embrace as the minutes ticked down before tip-off, posing for a photo before Berube hugged the rest of Auriemma’s staff.
“It was great to be back here,” Berube said postgame. “It’s a lot like I left it. … I have such fond memories of my time here. Even though it feels so long ago, it’s still fresh when I step on the court.”
“I’m just so happy for her because she’s done such a terrific job at Tufts and at Princeton and she’s just in a great place,” UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey, who also coached Berube, told reporters on Wednesday.* “She’s a really good coach … So we’re proud of her. But not proud enough to want to give her a win.”
Berube said she felt comfortable instantly in Gampel despite the time that had elapsed, and her team looked similarly comfortable early in the game. Sophomore Paige Morton made Princeton’s first shot attempt, and Princeton forced a jump ball and drew a charge on consecutive possessions in the first three minutes to take a 6-4 lead. Halfway through the first quarter, the score was 13-12 UConn, and Princeton’s Grace Stone was already hot, with eight of the Tigers’ first 12 points en route to a career-high 20.
After that, though, Princeton went cold, shooting just 1-for-14 from the field during one first-half stretch. They trailed by 15 late in the second quarter and 12 at half. The deficit continued to fluctuate between nine and 15 points in the third, and it hit 15 for the final time with 7:14 left in the game. But then Princeton ripped off a 10-0 run, fueled by three steals from its press, to claw within five points and bring fans to the edge of their seats.
“I was worried that, when we got down, I don’t know, 15, maybe, that we’d let it slip away,” Berube said. “And we didn’t because I’ve got tough players who just have a great will to win and just made some really great plays on the defensive end … Towards the end, I thought, ‘Could we really pull this out?’”
Princeton isn’t normally a pressing team, but its pressure changed the tenor of the game, especially with UConn missing guards Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd due to injury and point guard Nika Mühl getting injured in the third quarter. UConn totaled 27 turnovers that led to 28 Princeton points, and in the fourth quarter alone, Princeton got 17 points off of turnovers. Berube said that the press had been similarly effective in a November loss at Texas and that she would look to use it more going forward.
The Tigers twice cut the deficit to two points with under a minute remaining, and down by three with 21 seconds left, Princeton had two chances to tie but missed a shot and then turned the ball over after an offensive rebound. UConn turned the tables on Princeton for those final possessions, Berube said, putting so much pressure on Princeton that it was challenging to inbound the ball and execute the plays she had drawn up.
UConn sealed the game with two free throws from freshman backup point guard Inês Bettencourt, and after the buzzer sounded, Auriemma and Berube met again at midcourt for a hug. They briefly held up the handshake line as they talked, clad in nearly identical black quarter-zips and black pants.
“[He was] just proud of me, told me I’m a heck of a coach,” Berube said. “And I was just telling him thanks for playing us and that was really awesome.”
“I’ve been watching Carla’s teams for a long time, from Tufts to Princeton,” Auriemma told reporters postgame. “And there’s a quality about them that you really have to admire, how well they play together and how they make the play that they have to make at the time they have to make it. And if you don’t let them make a certain play, they keep at it until they get the shot that they want. They’re very disciplined that way; they’re very well-coached that way.”
Berube said on Tuesday that she would be proud of her team regardless of the result because she knew the Tigers would battle for 40 minutes. She battled, too, jumping up and down three times in frustration after a turnover and making gutsy decisions to press the Huskies and sub in 3-point shooter Lexi Weger, who hadn’t played the entire game, for a late offensive possession. But after the game, Berube also felt a conflicting sense of pride in her alma mater.
“I love UConn. So I’m proud of them for pulling this out, too, which is kind of a weird dynamic inside, but I just have so much respect for the UConn program and Coach [Auriemma],” Berube said. “… It was a fun game. So I’m glad I was able to do it. And maybe we’ll see them down the road in March.”
For Princeton, this game showed both sides of how its season is going. On the one hand, Her Hoop Stats gave the defending Ivy League champions just a 3.4% chance to win the game and predicted that UConn would win by 23 points. The Tigers nearly pulled off a comeback for the ages, fighting back from several deficits, and they did so with a pressing defense that has only just emerged as an option for them and could be even more effective in games to come.
On the other hand, the Huskies were down three backcourt starters by the end of the game in Bueckers, Fudd and Mühl; forward Dorka Juhász also did not play due to injury; and guard/forward Lou Lopez Sénéchal did not finish the game due to tenderness in her foot. UConn was a shell of itself, and Princeton couldn’t capitalize.
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Princeton’s offense has struggled at times to find fluidity: Its effective field goal percentage of 43.0% ranks in the 36th percentile nationally, and it is scoring 7.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than it did last season. Meanwhile, its defense has slid from third in the country last season in opponent points per 100 possessions to 143rd this season.
“We’re still figuring some things out,” Berube said on Tuesday. “I haven’t been as impressed as I want to be with our defense. … If you have great defensive possessions, it will lead to easier offense and better offense, and I think that’s a work in progress, too …
“There’s a lot of room to grow. I think the ceiling’s a lot higher here, and … these games that we’re playing [are] really going to help us.”
Fast forward a little more than 48 hours, and Berube sat in UConn’s media room as the losing coach, with logos of her alma mater adorning the backdrop behind her. Asked whether she would lament Princeton’s missed opportunities on the trip home, she acknowledged that every coaching staff in the country does that, but she’s also tried to find more positives in recent years.
“I try to look at it like, wow, you know, I’m really, really proud of my players, my team. This is a game that we’ll learn from and grow from and take steps forward. And I think that’s how I walked into the locker room, that’s how I’m going to leave Gampel feeling. Yeah, just proud of them for competing like they did and not the should’ve, could’ve, would’ve. I think that’s the old Carla.”
That mentality served her well on Thursday, helping her not only coach her team within inches of a top-10 upset, but also bask in a long-awaited homecoming.
* Thank you to the Hartford Courant’s Lila Bromberg for sharing this quotation.
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.