February 7, 2023 

‘It’s a party’: How Princeton and Columbia both won in sold-out rivalry rematch

Columbia’s crowd roared, Princeton’s defense soared, and both teams are in first place

NEW YORK – When the second half of Ivy League play began with games on Feb. 3 and 4, it was almost as if the Princeton Tigers said, “You thought there was chaos? Not so fast.”

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After the dust settled on the weekend’s games, the standings showed Princeton atop the Ivy League again, just as it has finished nine of the past 12 seasons. Yes, Columbia and Harvard are tied with the Tigers at 7-2, but Princeton is in control of its destiny after beating Columbia 74-56 on Feb. 4. That’s no small feat after the Tigers started conference play 0-2 for the first time since 2016-17, with losses on the road to Harvard and at home to Columbia.

In non-conference play, Princeton had looked unconvincing, generally winning the games it was supposed to but struggling to put together a complete 40 minutes. Of particular concern, head coach Carla Berube didn’t think her team’s defense was up to its usual standard. In its previous two seasons, Princeton had ranked third and first in the nation in defensive rating, but in early December, it ranked 143rd.

“We’re still figuring some things out,” Berube told reporters on Dec. 6. “I haven’t been as impressed as I want to be with our defense. I think we need to do a better job of locking in and containing … I think the ceiling’s a lot higher here.”

The offense, too, was still finding its rhythm after losing Ivy League Player of the Year Abby Meyers to graduation. Senior guard and reigning First-Team All-Ivy League selection Julia Cunningham struggled early, shooting under 34% from the field in six of her first seven games, and Berube tinkered with her rotations, trying out big and small lineups.

The loss to Harvard seemed to reinforce those trends: Princeton was forced into one-on-one offense, with just 11 assists on 24 field goals, and allowed Harvard to shoot 53.8% in the fourth quarter. But after the loss to Columbia on Jan. 6, Berube was encouraged by how her team had played, even though the result pushed Princeton further down the standings.

Since then, things have started to click: The defense is locking in, freshman guard Madison St. Rose has emerged as an Ivy League Rookie of the Year candidate, and Princeton is on its longest winning streak of the season at eight games. Ahead of last weekend’s games, ESPN’s Charlie Creme projected Princeton to be on the NCAA Tournament bubble as one of the first four teams left out of the field. And now the Tigers have their best win of the season over a Columbia team that was 33rd in the national NET ranking entering that game.

Two Princeton players line up on either side of a Columbia player for free throws.
Princeton’s Ellie Mitchell (left) and Julia Cunningham (right) prepare to box out Columbia’s Sienna Durr after a free throw at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on Feb. 4, 2023. (Photo credit: Joshua Wang)

Heading into that game, Columbia had been brimming with confidence. The Lions had snapped a 27-game losing streak in the series with the win at Princeton on Jan. 6 and, in their estimation, hadn’t played particularly well while doing it. They also beat Penn 72-50 on Feb. 3, avenging a four-point loss from earlier this season, on the strength of a 30-0 advantage in fast-break points.

The game against Princeton on Feb. 4 started how Columbia drew it up, with reigning Ivy League Player of the Week Kaitlyn Davis drawing two defenders and finding senior forward Hannah Pratt for a 3-pointer 16 seconds in. But that ended up being Columbia’s last lead at 3-0 and, seemingly, its last open shot as Princeton’s defense settled in.

Columbia’s next basket didn’t come for another 5:07, and in between, the Lions committed five turnovers and missed six shots, including four layups.

“This is what I’ve been hoping for,” Berube said postgame, “… just stop after stop.”

“When we’re getting hands on things, we’re digging, we’re getting defensive rebounds, and we’re all just kind of playing together as a unit is when it all really comes together,” Cunningham added. “… Frustrating them on the defensive end was the plan, and I think we did a good job.”

Columbia head coach Megan Griffith told reporters postgame that the early turnovers and other mistakes frustrated her team, which was playing in front of the largest home crowd in program history in a game it desperately wanted to win. When Davis and senior wing Jaida Patrick each picked up two fouls in the first quarter, Griffith said, it felt “almost like we literally ran the game back from the [2022] Ivy League Tournament,” which was also an 18-point Columbia loss to Princeton.

“When the game didn’t go our way, I think we did fold a little bit,” Griffith said. “… They rattled us and we just never really found our feet again.”

Griffith called more plays than usual in the first half, which was an ominous sign for a team that usually thrives in less structured situations. She tried to get her players to exploit the middle of the Princeton defense, but they didn’t execute, rarely getting to their second or third options after the Tigers shut the first option down. Overall, Princeton held Columbia to 26.2% shooting from the field and forced 19 turnovers, and Columbia’s “Big Three” of Davis, Patrick and junior guard Abbey Hsu made only six total shots.

On the other hand, Berube praised her team for its poise and ability to weather a Columbia run, which finally came in the third quarter. Princeton extended a 15-point halftime lead to 21 in the first three minutes of the third quarter, but Columbia trimmed the deficit to 10 with 27 seconds left. Princeton junior guard Kaitlyn Chen, however, promptly extinguished the Lions’ momentum by draining a pull-up jump shot with five seconds remaining.

“They don’t get rattled, whatever is happening out there,” Berube said of her players. “We knew Columbia would go on a run, and they certainly did in that third quarter. And our backs were against the wall a little bit … [but we] know to just get back to playing Princeton basketball and our principles. And I think that nonconference schedule has helped us in these big games, [so the players] are battle-tested.”

Columbia got no closer than 12 points the rest of the way, and one fourth-quarter sequence was representative of the Lions’ afternoon. Columbia forced Princeton to miss a floater, and Hsu grabbed the rebound and pushed the ball up court. Pratt then missed a driving layup and St. Rose rebounded it for Princeton, but Davis forced St. Rose to turn the ball right back over — only for sophomore point guard Kitty Henderson to miss the resulting layup.

Princeton finished with four starters in double figures, and the fifth starter, junior forward Ellie Mitchell, had nine points and 17 rebounds. The Tigers shot 42.9% from the field, including 50.0% in the final quarter, and got 32 points in the paint.

After the final buzzer, the Tigers’ on-court celebration was muted, but they knew the importance of what they had just accomplished. Their Ivy League title hopes are now very much alive, and their NCAA Tournament resume got a major boost. And that 143rd-ranked defense is up to 19th in the nation, allowing a meager 80.3 points per 100 possessions.

For Columbia, the loss was disappointing, especially with a program-record 2,653 fans packed floor to ceiling in Levien Gymnasium. But it was hardly damning for the Lions’ NCAA Tournament hopes, and beyond the scoreboard, the bigger win was how much excitement they generated for both weekend games. Columbia women’s basketball has become a household name in the Big Apple amid plenty of competition from other local colleges and professional teams for attention.

Last season, Columbia played 15 home games, including three in the WNIT, and drew a total of 10,683 fans, according to NCAA data. This season, Columbia has already drawn 10,735 fans for nine home games. In addition, its average of nearly 1,200 fans per game this season is on par with what it averaged during the WNIT run last season.

On Columbia’s Morningside Hoops podcast on Jan. 26, Davis told hosts Kyle Mattracion and Aliyah Funschelle that she was at a sandwich shop on campus recently when fans approached her with Columbia basketball posters and asked for autographs. One even shouted from across the room, to Davis’ bewilderment, “You’re famous!” Other Columbia students know who the players are and what the team has accomplished, and Griffith and her staff also get recognized often around the city.

“[At] the end of last year, people would stop me in New York — in Harlem, in our community — talking to me when I wasn’t in Columbia gear. So that was kind of the first [time] I was like, ‘Wow, people know who we are,’” Griffith told reporters on Jan. 31. “This year, I feel like our team is treated like a pro basketball team. I mean, everybody knows who the players are. Everybody knows who my staff is. … It’s really cool to see what we’ve done for the community and how much the community has rallied around our program.”

Friday’s game against Penn was a near-sellout with 2,111 fans in attendance, and on Saturday, fans lined the walkway above the very top row of seats. Waves of fans — at least one shaking a tambourine and several carrying homemade signs — streamed in just before the games tipped off, keeping the security staff busy as they tried to prevent bottlenecks and keep fans off the edges of the court. A robust student section showed up on both nights, including members of the Columbia football team on Saturday.

The fans were locked in even before the games started, roaring in delight at Columbia’s pregame hype video and studying the teams’ warm-ups. “Kitty Henderson’s back!” one fan exclaimed on Friday, noticing Henderson warming up before he’d even found his seat. (Henderson had missed the previous game to rest but started both games last weekend.)

The crowd especially hung on Hsu’s every move, brimming with anticipation for every shot and letting out a disappointed “Oh” that lingered for several beats after her misses. But the fans also reveled in transition layups by Patrick and powerful finishes by Davis, and on Friday, they leapt to their feet for nearly every Columbia possession as the Lions got a steady diet of transition baskets and 3-pointers. At halftime, Waka Flocka Flame’s song “Grove St. Party” fittingly played, with the lyrics “It’s a party, it’s a party, it’s a party!” thumping throughout the gym.

Columbia players and staff rush toward guard Abbey Hsu (right, facing camera) after she got a steal and hit a jump shot to close the third quarter against Penn at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on Feb. 3, 2023. (Photo credit: Joshua Wang)

On Saturday, the Levien Gymnasium crowd was much less joyous, but it hung in with the Lions all game, cursing the officiating and encouraging the players. Boos rained down on the officials for the first foul call 52 seconds into the game, loud enough to be mistaken for a late-game inflection point. After Columbia made just one of its first five shots, fans yelled, “It’s all right, keep shooting!”

The game didn’t get much better for them, but two hours later, as Hsu attempted two free throws with 13 seconds left and the game decided, a few fans still said softly, hopefully, “Come on, Abbey!”

The environment was so intense that even the Princeton players — who are no stranger to raucous crowds after their NCAA Tournament run last season — took notice. “This was a really fun environment to play in, so shoutout Columbia for bringing out so many people,” Chen said postgame.

“Yeah, the student section was great,” Cunningham added. “And I think, especially for women’s basketball, it’s a big step in the right direction and for the Ivy League in particular.”

Crucially, the Columbia players and staff know that the atmosphere isn’t a flash in the pan. Even though they saw an opportunity on the court slip by on Saturday, letting Princeton back into familiar pole position in the Ivy League race, they took another step in rallying the community around them by drawing a sellout crowd.

“Props to our fans … They know who we are. They know the work that we put in and how we’ve been succeeding all season long to this point,” Hsu said postgame. “So they just want to support something like this, and I know, even after tonight, they’re going to be back …

“Win or lose, they’re going to be there.”

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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