March 12, 2023
Princeton’s road to Ivy League Tournament title was familiar but hardly easy
Harvard cements presence as current and future contender
PRINCETON, N.J. – Princeton women’s basketball has won five straight Ivy League regular-season titles and won its fourth straight Ivy League Tournament title on Saturday, so you’d think the program would be well versed in cutting down nets.
But on Saturday, the Tigers forgot one crucial element as they tried to celebrate their latest banner-raising accomplishment: scissors.
The scissors were eventually located and the net was cut, and it entered the custody of junior forward and All-Tournament Team selection Ellie Mitchell, who proudly wore it around her neck in the postgame press conference.
Princeton defeated Harvard 54-48, coming back from an 11-point deficit with almost no time to spare. Junior guard Kaitlyn Chen was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for the second time in as many seasons after pouring in 21 points, six rebounds, an assist and a steal. Mitchell, the Ivy League’s top rebounder, chipped in 10 points and 15 rebounds for her fourth double-double of the season and second of the tournament.
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The Tigers have now won eight straight Ivy Tournament games, all as the No. 1 seed, dating back to the 2017-18 season. In that span, Princeton has an overall record of 120-27, including the postseason, and its regular-season conference record is even better at 64-6.
That level of winning might seem to come easily, even inevitably, for Princeton. But in the tournament final and over the entire season, it has been anything but, and the Tigers deserve credit for winning anyway.
On Saturday, Harvard started the game by making a defensive stop, getting a basket from sophomore guard Harmoni Turner, and forcing a Princeton shot clock violation. Thirteen minutes in, Harvard had two players in foul trouble, had committed seven total fouls to Princeton’s zero, and had let Chen score at will, yet the score was tied at 19. The teams traded a few baskets, and then Harvard ripped off a 9-0 run, including a 3-pointer by junior guard Lola Mullaney with two seconds remaining, to enter halftime up 32-23.
In all, the Crimson outscored the Tigers 17-5 in the second quarter, shooting 8-for-17 to Princeton’s 2-for-14. The Tigers trailed by as many as 11 early in the third quarter and by seven entering the fourth quarter. From there, Princeton made its push, in part by deploying a 1-2-2 press that Harvard hadn’t seen in the Tigers’ game film all season.
It felt like Princeton was gaining momentum long before the scoreboard actually flipped in its favor, but when it finally did, it flipped in a hurry. A Mitchell layup with 50 seconds left in the game put Princeton up 49-48, its first lead since the score was 19-17 with 8:00 remaining in the second quarter. Harvard did not score for the rest of the game, while Princeton tacked on five more points to establish its largest lead of the game at the final horn.
The game was eerily similar to the teams’ previous meeting, one of several challenging games for the Tigers this season. On Feb. 24, Harvard won the second quarter 16-8 and led by as many as 12. But Princeton took the lead with 19 seconds left in the game, and Harvard didn’t score again.
The Tigers also had to battle at Penn on March 3 and even at Dartmouth, which finished winless in conference play, on Jan. 21. Princeton led the Big Green by only a point at halftime and seven after three quarters before a 23-10 fourth quarter gave the Tigers a comfortable win.
And who could forget how Princeton lost its first two Ivy League games this season to Harvard and Columbia, snapping the longest conference winning streak in league history and seemingly putting the Tigers’ title and NCAA Tournament chances at risk? The Tigers had looked somewhat unconvincing in nonconference play as well: In early December, their effective field goal percentage ranked 231st nationally, and the vaunted defense that had ranked third in the country in 2021-22 had fallen to 143rd.
“At the start of the season, our team wasn’t clicking as well,” Chen told The Next on March 3. “… It felt like something was a little off. We weren’t always there for each other on defense. And I think something changed throughout the Ivy season after our two losses. …
“Now we play with a different kind of intensity and a different mindset, like that we have to win this and we’re gonna put everything out there, [whereas] maybe we were playing a little more casual before.”
Princeton head coach Carla Berube echoed that after Saturday’s win, telling reporters, “We didn’t come together [earlier in the season] like we are now. So this has been a work in progress, and just because we saw success last year, it doesn’t just roll over into the next season. … [That] makes it really sweet that we came from that point and just came together.”
So the Tigers celebrated their championship with abandon, as if they hadn’t won four straight tournaments or cut down the nets for a regular-season title only a week prior. Players and coaches hugged each other as Daft Punk’s “One More Time” played. Mitchell hoisted senior guards Maggie Connolly and Julia Cunningham into the air at the same time, one in each arm. Forwards Katie Thiers and Paige Morton took single streamers that had cascaded from the ceiling and draped them like feather boas around their necks.
After the team cut the net, Berube making the final snip and waving the net above her head, Connolly climbed up the ladder again and onto the rim. She sat there and let out a yell, then threw her arms out to the side as she looked down the Jadwin Gymnasium court that she and her classmates had so thoroughly dominated.
Mitchell wore the net around her neck, along with a bevy of streamers, to the postgame press conference. When she and Chen were excused, leaving Berube alone at the podium, Berube asked her to hand over the net. “I don’t need it on me,” Berube said, having worn it minutes earlier when she hoisted the trophy, but she seemed to like the idea of having it nearby, as she has for so many Marches over the years.
Harvard head coach Carrie Moore has had a front-row seat to the Princeton dynasty — and not just because she was the losing coach on Saturday. She was on the Tigers’ staff in 2017-18 and 2018-19 under Courtney Banghart and helped start the current streak of conference tournament titles. “They’ve got a good team,” she said postgame. “I should know: I recruited a lot of them.”
Moore explained what separates the Tigers in two sentences: “They’re a program that wins, right? And so if your seniors have won, your freshmen come in, and that is what is embedded in them.”
Now Moore is trying to build Harvard into that kind of Ivy League power, like the Harvard of the 1980s-2000s that paced the league along with Dartmouth. On Saturday, Princeton beat Moore and the Crimson in perhaps the most brutal way possible — letting them believe they would win, then popping that belief like a balloon in the final minute. But in her first season succeeding legendary head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, Moore has already made history, securing Harvard’s first championship game appearance and the first women’s basketball upset of the modern tournament in the semifinals.
Harvard showed tremendous growth throughout the season despite numerous injuries, including to co-captain Maggie McCarthy and freshman starter Gabby Anderson. At times, Harvard barely had the seven healthy players that the conference requires to compete. The Crimson struggled in a Thanksgiving tournament against three Power 5 teams that finished with NET rankings similar to Princeton’s, and in December, they lost to Northeastern, which is now ranked 146th in the NET to Harvard’s 78. But Harvard rebounded to finish third in the Ivy League with a 9-5 conference record and play Columbia and Princeton close in February, and then it exacted revenge on Columbia in the tournament semifinals.
“I think Year 1 is really challenging anywhere when you’re trying to change the culture and also follow in the footsteps of the hallmark of Ivy women’s basketball, right, Kathy Delaney-Smith,” Columbia head coach Megan Griffith told reporters on Thursday, “and she’s doing a great job.”
“It’s not easy,” Berube added on Saturday about Moore, three years after Berube debuted at Princeton. “… [As a new head coach,] you’re sort of just adapting and changing, and she was dealt a tough hand with a lot of injuries and I think she’s just a really great leader. … I think she’s going to be a really successful coach for a long time.”
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Even as Princeton extended its championship run, the tournament results reinforced the depth of the Ivy League. In the regular season, the top four teams were separated by just three losses, the fewest since 2003-04, and there was speculation that the conference could get two NCAA Tournament bids for the first time since 2015-16.
The Ivy League might be moving past the era of two teams trading off at the top and into an era where the top teams shuffle more frequently. After Harvard and/or Dartmouth won the regular-season title in 24 of 31 seasons from 1979-80 through 2008-09, Princeton and Penn took over for the 2010s and battled for the first three tournament titles from 2017-19.
Co-champions Princeton and Columbia had looked like the duo to beat for much of the 2022-23 season, but Harvard crashed the tournament party after pushing them both to the brink (and upsetting Princeton) in the regular season. Encouragingly, Harvard has a young roster with just two seniors in the rotation, and three of its four double-figure scorers will return next season, so it and other teams could again make the title race intriguing.
“We have taken steps forward with this particular team,” Moore said on Saturday. “Harvard women’s basketball has never played in this [championship] game, okay, so we took a step. …
“We’ll get back. That’s what I told my team. … Harvard women’s basketball will be a consistent staple in this in this game. And we will get over the top of this.”
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.