March 24, 2022
‘They’re that good’: Princeton’s season is over, but it made a lasting impression
And the Tigers are built to last
After No. 3 seed Indiana narrowly advanced to the Sweet 16 on Monday night over Princeton, a reporter asked head coach Teri Moren whether it was good for her team to experience a close game in the NCAA Tournament after blowing out No. 14 seed Charlotte in the first round.
“Not at all. No. Are you crazy?” she replied, drawing laughs from the room. “I want that game the other day. I liked that one.”
Monday’s opponent was the No. 11 seed Tigers, and after a 56-55 win in Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Moren recognized how easily the game could have gone the other way. “Give credit to Princeton because they are terrific,” she said. “And they gave us everything we wanted and more, and we made just enough plays under the minute mark or two-minute mark to win the game today. And we’re really, really fortunate.”
Win an autographed WNBA card!
During the month of November, new subscribers to The Next will be entered to win a signed trading card from six-time WNBA All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith of the Phoenix Mercury.
In addition to the chance to win an autographed card, you will also be supporting the vital work of our staff. Our staff of writers, editors and photographers provide 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage about the game we all love. Your subscription helps to ensure the pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph this great game, continues and grows.
The game was a back-and-forth affair, featuring eight ties and nine lead changes. The two teams look similar on paper—aggressive but fundamentally sound defenses, efficient and balanced offenses, and tight seven-player rotations—and they more than lived up to that on Monday. Each team drew a charge on their first defensive possession, then Princeton’s Grace Stone and Indiana’s Nicole Cardaño-Hillary hit 3-pointers to open the scoring. Late in the fourth quarter, with Princeton down by one, the teams also traded defensive stops for nearly four minutes, ratcheting up the tension for the announced crowd of 9,627 fans.
“This could have been a Sweet 16 or an Elite 8 matchup,” Princeton guard Julia Cunningham said afterward.
What separated the Hoosiers in the end? A late jump shot by Grace Berger, who led all scorers with 15 points and added seven rebounds, and two free throws by Aleksa Gulbe pushed the Indiana lead to four before Princeton star Abby Meyers drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
The Tigers were ranked No. 25 in the AP Poll and projected as just two-possession underdogs, so a close game with the No. 11 Hoosiers was not surprising. What was even more impressive than the final margin was how Princeton hung with Indiana. The Tigers faced a nightmare scenario when Meyers, a senior guard, picked up her second foul exactly four minutes into the first quarter and sophomore point guard Kaitlyn Chen got hers with six seconds remaining.
Princeton’s starters all average at least 29 minutes per game and only two reserves play at least 10 minutes per game, so sitting Meyers and Chen meant that the Tigers were using all of their bench. Chen never found a groove offensively, shooting just 3-for-13 from the field for 10 points, and Meyers didn’t until the fourth quarter, when she scored nine of her 11 points.
It was a sharp contrast from two days earlier, when Princeton knocked off Kentucky behind 29 points from Meyers and 17 from Chen. “Abby Meyers played pretty close to as good as she can,” head coach Carla Berube said about the Kentucky game on Princeton’s “Conversations with Carla” podcast. Neither player could replicate that performance on Monday, but Meyers in particular stayed composed and didn’t shy away from open shots. And Princeton made it work—and showed off the balance and relentlessness of its supporting cast in the process.
Stone, the team’s fourth-leading scorer, had a game-high eight points after the first quarter, and Cunningham added nine points in the half. They each finished with 13, and the lone starter who didn’t crack double figures, 6’1 forward Ellie Mitchell, had a game-high 15 rebounds against Indiana’s two 6’3 starters, Gulbe and Mackenzie Holmes.
In addition, Princeton was able to impose its style of play on Indiana in many respects. It withstood the Hoosiers’ defensive pressure and raucous crowd and only had eight turnovers, below its already-low average of 13.4. Combine that with 10 offensive rebounds, and Princeton got 19 more shot attempts than Indiana in the game.
The Tigers also brought their own suffocating defense, particularly in the second half. Indiana’s 56 points were the fourth-fewest the Hoosiers have scored all season and just barely above Princeton’s average of 51.5 points allowed. In the third quarter, Princeton trimmed a 14-point deficit to three by holding Indiana to just six points on 27% shooting from the field.
“That’s a big-time number,” Cunningham said of the six points, “… and that was our game plan.”
That defense left an impression on Berger, a senior All-American who is averaging 16.3 points per game and has seen “pretty much everything” in her Big Ten career. “I [had] heard they were a really good defensive team, but I think once I got in that first half, I kind of really realized for myself how good they were, how aggressive they were, how long they were,” she said. “Credit to them—they definitely made everything hard for me.”
But after Berger hit the go-ahead shot with 29 seconds remaining, it was the Hoosiers who got the deciding defensive stop, shutting down a Princeton play in which Chen attacked the rim and had Meyers as a second option near the top of the key. Chen turned the ball over with four seconds left, and Princeton was forced to foul. With the game out of reach and time expiring, Meyers squeezed every second out of her Princeton career and hit a difficult shot that Tigers fans have seen before from her: a 3-pointer where she jumped, spun to face the basket and shot in one motion. Swish.
It wasn’t enough, and the result was a mix of sadness and pride. There was disappointment that the Tigers fell one point short of the first Sweet 16 in Ivy League history and pride in what they accomplished in a hostile Assembly Hall and all season. They finished the season 25-5 with wins over two ranked teams, Florida Gulf Coast and Kentucky, for the first time in program history. They led the country with the fewest assists allowed per game and ranked in the top 15 in defensive rating, scoring margin per game, opponent shooting percentage and steal rate.
They were also 16-0 against Ivy League opponents, becoming the first program to go undefeated in consecutive Ivy League regular seasons. Before Monday, their last loss came on Dec. 22 to Texas, which earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Yet the Tigers arguably flew under the radar all season, not appearing in the AP Poll until March 7 and earning just a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Some Power 5 coaches were reportedly stunned to see Princeton beat Kentucky on Saturday, and even coaches in the Ivy League weren’t sure how Princeton would fare in the NCAA Tournament.
“Our league is good, and Princeton is very good. We knew that,” Columbia head coach Megan Griffith told reporters on Tuesday. “[But] … I was like, ‘How good are they?’ Because they’ve dropped games to Fordham, they’ve dropped games to Seton Hall. And these are all good teams. But I do think some of these BCS programs, because they play each other all the time, you just don’t get to see us playing them … It was a neat takeaway for me to be like, ‘Yeah, they’re that good.’”
Princeton was confident in its ability to win both games, and even in defeat, it proved that it was right to be. Heading into the Indiana game, Berube said, “Everybody thinks that they’re the better team, the stronger team, but we know who we are … Hopefully, we just fall back on our values and our principles and just make it really hard for them. … It comes down to playing 40 minutes of Tiger basketball.”
Princeton showed on a national stage this weekend that it could play with anyone, and as a result, Meyers, Cunningham and Berube entered Monday’s postgame press conference with their heads high. There were no tears.
“I hope that we left our mark and our legacy and … opened people’s eyes to the Ivy League,” said Meyers, who set Princeton’s single-season scoring record in Monday’s game.
“I think we put Princeton on the map,” Cunningham added. “I think we made some people aware of what we’re able to do, beat the SEC champs and then come in and have a one-point game with the Big Ten runner-up. I think for the Ivy League it’s huge. For Princeton, it’s huge.”
Cunningham credited Meyers for being “a huge, huge factor” in raising Princeton’s profile nationally, and Meyers’ impact on the court this season was undeniable. She was the unanimous Ivy League Player of the Year, was an AP Honorable Mention All-America, and led the team and ranked second in the conference with 17.9 points per game. But Meyers is the only senior on the roster who saw game action, leaving Princeton poised to build on its historic season.
“I feel like we’ve kind of lit the fire on to next year’s goals,” Meyers said.
The top returning scorer will be Cunningham, who averaged 13.3 points per game this season while also being a co-captain and the team’s “guard defensive stopper,” as Stone put it on Sunday. Around her, she’ll have two starting-caliber point guards in Chen and current junior Maggie Connolly and the returning frontcourt of Stone and Mitchell. And whereas only a handful of players had NCAA Tournament experience before this season, next year everyone will know what it’s like to play under the brightest of lights—and fall one point short of advancing.
“I’m glad that they had this experience [of playing in the tournament],” Berube said. “… They’re going to be really hungry to get back to games like this.”
Next year, more people will know Princeton’s name—and Berube hopes that the Tigers will replicate the environment they faced in Assembly Hall in friendlier confines. “We would like to host in Jadwin [Gymnasium] if possible next year, at our place,” she said.
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.