March 16, 2024 

‘No matter what it looks like’: Princeton, Columbia survive semifinal scares, set up titanic Ivy League title clash

Princeton showed rare jitters, while Columbia kept its nerve after being upset last season

NEW YORK — Since the Ivy League Tournament was instituted in its current format in 2017, there have been some semifinal blowouts. In 2019, for example, Penn beat Harvard by 29 points, and in 2022, Columbia did the same to Yale.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

This time, though, both semifinals were tight throughout. None of the four teams led by more than 10, and the eventual combined margin of victory — seven points — was the smallest in tournament history, across the men’s and women’s semifinals.

In the end, No. 1 seed Princeton and No. 2 seed Columbia advanced to Saturday’s final. Princeton topped No. 4 seed Penn 59-54, and Columbia beat No. 3 seed Harvard 63-61. But in the process, the four-time tournament champion Tigers looked newly vulnerable, while Columbia calmly put the ghosts of its semifinal loss in 2023 to bed.

The Next, a 24/7/365 women’s basketball newsroom

The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff and dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.

Princeton entered the tournament having won 18 of its past 19 games, nearly all of them by double digits, and with a NET ranking of No. 34 nationally. It shared the regular-season Ivy League title with Columbia — Princeton’s sixth straight title — after both finished 13-1 in conference play. But there were a few tiny cracks in Princeton’s armor that didn’t always appear in previous seasons.

There was a nerve-wracking five-point win over Penn on March 9 in which the Quakers closed within two in the final quarter. There were closer-than-expected wins over Brown, which tied with Penn for fourth in the league with a 7-7 conference record.

“We have a reputation of being No. 1 in the Ivies, and everyone is going to bring their best game and try to take us down,” guard Madison St. Rose told reporters on March 1, after Princeton recovered from a halftime deficit to beat Harvard. “And so … we have to kind of have our A-game 24/7, and if we don’t, that’s when we have these close games.”

There is also the fact that Princeton is allowing opponents to shoot a whopping 37.6% from 3-point range. That’s the fourth-highest percentage allowed in the country, despite the Tigers’ otherwise stout defense. On Friday, Penn made 5-of-9 3-pointers, compared to Princeton’s 5-of-20.

Three of those Quaker 3-pointers came in the first half, which Penn won using an aggressive defense that put Princeton on its heels. For the game, Penn forced 21 Princeton turnovers and converted them into 25 points, compared to the Tigers’ 11 points off 23 Penn turnovers.

Despite starting three seniors, the Tigers had some jitters that contributed, too, head coach Carla Berube said postgame.

“They forced a lot [of our turnovers], but I think there were some that we just, the moment was a little big, maybe,” she told reporters. “But they found their way in in the second half, and I think we just did a better job of taking care of it until the very end. And then it got a little crazy.”

Your business can reach over 3 million women’s sports fans every single month!

Here at The Next and The IX, our audience is a collection of the smartest, most passionate women’s sports fans in the world. If your business has a mission to serve these fans, reach out to our team at to discuss ways to work together.

Princeton took its largest lead of the game, eight points, on a St. Rose jump shot with 3:42 left. The Tigers maintained that advantage for the next two and a half minutes, but two turnovers in 22 seconds helped Penn cut the lead to three.

Penn senior forward Jordan Obi scored all five points in that stretch, including a 3-pointer with 50.7 seconds left that made the score 57-54. It was her third 3-pointer of the game on four attempts, and after it swished through the net, she clenched her fists in a subtle expression of how much her team needed it.

The Penn band was less subtle: During the ensuing timeout, one band member wandered around the bleachers and yelled, “What is happening?!” Soon, the full band started chanting, “Jor-dan O-bi!”

From there, the Quakers continued their pressure, forcing a Princeton miss and then stealing an inbounds pass with 19 seconds left to give themselves a chance to tie. They turned the ball over instead, but Obi nearly picked off the next Princeton inbounds pass, too. A few Princeton free throws and a missed 3-pointer from Penn finally sealed the deal for the Tigers.

“It’s about surviving and advancing. It’s about winning no matter what it looks like,” Berube said. “… Certainly the end of it wasn’t exactly how we drew it up.”

“The group put themselves in position to beat a really good team,” Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin told reporters afterward, “and that’s all we could ever ask for.” He called his team’s execution “awesome” — a word you don’t hear often when teams play Princeton.

Penn point guard Mataya Gayle pushes off her right leg to try to get a stepback midrange jumper.
Penn point guard Mataya Gayle (22) makes a move against Princeton point guard Ashley Chea (13) in an Ivy League Tournament semifinal at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 15, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Some of Penn’s best execution was by freshman point guard Mataya Gayle, the Ivy League Rookie of the Year. She had a game-high 20 points on 9-for-19 shooting, along with five assists and four rebounds. She became the first freshman to score 20 points on the Tigers this season.

“She was great, wasn’t she?” McLaughlin said proudly.

Gayle told reporters afterward that she felt she hadn’t played her best against Princeton in the regular season. She dealt with an injury in their first meeting and just wasn’t herself in the second. “Coming in today, I … had something to prove to them and to myself,” she said.

“We were talking about how well we were defending her for the last two games, and every time, I’m like, ‘Ooh, she’s gonna go off,’” Berube said with a knowing laugh. “And she did. She’s really a talented, skilled, athletic, smart player that plays really, really hard. And I’m not looking forward to coaching against her for the next three years.”

After the game, McLaughlin choked up thinking about how much his team had progressed this season. Obi, perhaps seeing her Penn career end, was quiet, saying only how much she loves her teammates when she was asked to reflect on her career.

The Quakers knew they had had a golden opportunity to beat Princeton, and they were crushed not to deliver. Few people had expected them to make noise in this tournament, but they believed they could crash the party — and they provided a blueprint for how to rattle the Tigers.

Add Locked On Women’s Basketball to your daily routine

Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.

A few hours later, Columbia weathered its own storm in the second semifinal against Harvard. Some of the plays down the stretch were similar to the first semifinal, but it felt much less wobbly for the Lions in front of a raucous home crowd.

Like Penn did in the first semifinal, the underdog Crimson took a narrow halftime lead on a buzzer-beater from sophomore guard Gabby Anderson. But Columbia forged ahead in the third quarter, just like Princeton had.

Still, Harvard stayed within striking distance, and two Columbia turnovers with just under two minutes left allowed Harvard to cut an eight-point lead to two. After Columbia pushed the lead back to eight, Harvard used an 8-2 run in the final minute to again close within two.

The question hanging in the arena was whether history would repeat itself. The teams had met in last year’s semifinals, and Harvard sprung the upset in overtime, helped by two late Columbia turnovers.

“You want some of that magic to happen,” Harvard head coach Carrie Moore said postgame. “You felt it. You felt it again.”

The problem for Harvard was that only one team felt that magic. The Lions had been extremely loose at their press conference the day before, in contrast to the pressure they’d felt in 2023, and they didn’t have any flashbacks as Harvard cut into their lead late in the game.

“You’re not happy to turn over the ball, but I wasn’t at all panicked,” Columbia senior guard Abbey Hsu told reporters postgame about the final two minutes. “I knew we would finish the game.”

Order ‘Rare Gems’ and save 30%

Howard Megdal, founder and editor of The Next and The IX, released his next book on May 7, 2024. This deeply reported story follows four connected generations of women’s basketball pioneers, from Elvera “Peps” Neuman to Cheryl Reeve and from Lindsay Whalen to Sylvia Fowles and Paige Bueckers.

If you enjoy his coverage of women’s basketball every Wednesday at The IX, you will love “Rare Gems: How Four Generations of Women Paved the Way for the WNBA.” Click the link below to order and enter MEGDAL30 at checkout.

Junior guard Cecelia Collins — a transfer from Bucknell who didn’t experience last season’s upset — added, “We said before the game we’re gonna face adversity throughout the whole thing, so the team that stays the most connected throughout is going to come out with the win. So I think we were just keeping that in the back of our mind [and] continuing to check in with each other if someone turned the ball over or something like that. … I think that really helped.”

Head coach Megan Griffith echoed that, saying that she fully trusts her team to show up and perform every day. She hasn’t felt that with every team she’s coached, but this is a team she’s said could be the best in Columbia history by season’s end, better even than last year’s team that advanced to the WNIT final and was one Harvard upset away from the NCAA Tournament. Her team entered Friday having won 20 of its past 21 games, including 10 straight.

In part, this team’s reliability comes from Hsu, the Ivy League Player of the Year and Columbia’s all-time leading scorer. She had a game-high 22 points and a career-high 14 rebounds on Friday, but more than that, she got her team in the confident and gritty mindset it needed to win.

One play Griffith pointed to came early in the third quarter as Columbia made a pivotal run. Hsu missed a 3-pointer but ran cross-court to corral her own rebound as it sailed out of bounds. She saved it to Collins, who finished a tough layup through contact. That put the Lions up by two, and they’d stretch it to eight by the end of the quarter.

Columbia guard Abbey Hsu shoots an open layup in transition. A Harvard defender is on the floor near the baseline, and another recovers too late to contest Hsu's shot.
Columbia guard Abbey Hsu (35) sheds a defender and shoots a layup in transition in an Ivy League Tournament semifinal against Harvard at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 15, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Late in the fourth quarter, Collins returned the favor of sorts, throwing a baseball pass nearly the length of the court to Hsu. Hsu caught it and went one-on-one with a taller defender on the block, faking a shot and then spinning. Caught off-balance, the defender fell to the floor, and Hsu finished an open layup.

“She was gonna do everything it took to win that game, and that’s what you saw tonight,” Griffith said. “… It was a series of plays that she was like, I gotta lock in here and show my team we gotta scrap for every loose ball. … I think she just set a tone right there, and everybody was like, ‘Yo, we got this. Yo, we’re with you, Ab.’”

One of Hsu’s few missteps of the night came in the postgame locker room, when she tried to slap a Columbia sticker on the bracket to mark the Lions’ advancement. The sticker fell to the floor after her first attempt, prompting a teammate to yell, “Get that girl a glue stick!” It seemed to match the Lions’ Ivy Tournament arc over the past two seasons: After the wheels fell off for Columbia last year in the semifinals, the Lions made sure the plan stuck the second time.

Your business can reach over 3 million women’s sports fans every single month!

Here at The Next and The IX, our audience is a collection of the smartest, most passionate women’s sports fans in the world. If your business has a mission to serve these fans, reach out to our team at to discuss ways to work together.

Neither semifinal on Friday was expected to be as close as it was, and it made for two dramatic and chaotic finishes. But, with both Princeton and Columbia having survived their semifinal tests, the matchup that many observers hoped for will happen in the final.

The two teams have been fierce rivals for a few years now. Half of Columbia’s Ivy League losses over the past two seasons have been to Princeton. Meanwhile, in Berube’s four seasons at Princeton, two of her three Ivy League losses have come to Columbia, and she’ll put her 5-0 Ivy League Tournament record against all opponents on the line again on Saturday. This one is expected to be close: Her Hoop Stats projects Columbia to win by just two points on its home court.

Players on the Columbia bench jump up and down, shout, and raise one arm to celebrate a basket.
The Columbia bench celebrates during an Ivy League Tournament semifinal against Harvard at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 15, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

The NCAA Tournament stakes are different for the two teams. Princeton is all but assured an at-large bid to its fourth NCAA Tournament in as many seasons if it loses, but Columbia likely needs to win to make its first-ever NCAA Tournament. But to the teams themselves, the stakes feel exactly the same: win, or else.

“I’m not going to leave it to those on the [NCAA Tournament selection] committee” to determine Princeton’s fate, Berube said. “I’d love to get that that [automatic bid] and just relax. So that is the goal. That’s why we’re here is to win this championship.”

“This is just a guts game — who wants it more, right?” Griffith said. “They’ve got great players; we’ve got great players. … This is March. You got to show up and want that moment, and I’m really confident [we] want the moment. …

“I don’t think this is the last you’ll see of us in March. And I think [Saturday] is going to show everybody in the world why we should be in the [NCAA] Tournament.”

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.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.