December 9, 2021
‘Fail, do it again, fail, do it again’: The makings of an elite Princeton defense
The Tigers are one of the nation’s top defensive teams—yet some early failures might help them get even better
FORT MYERS, FLA. – As hotel staff trimmed a Christmas tree in the lobby of an Embassy Suites hotel on Dec. 1, Princeton head coach Carla Berube tried to explain why her team’s defense so often puts the Tigers on opponents’ “naughty” lists. Berube’s defensive concepts haven’t changed in years, she toldThe Next, and there is no full-court press, wacky zone or other trickery—just fundamentally sound, hard-nosed, committed defense.
“What we do defensively is not anything different than anybody else. It’s really not rocket science,” said Berube, who is in her second season of competition at Princeton after 17 seasons at Division III Tufts. “… [But] we focus on it, and we know it’s an important piece to our success.”
In Berube’s first season at Princeton in 2019-20, the Tigers led the nation in points allowed per 100 possessions, also known as defensive rating. This season has been much of the same, from holding Villanova to 26.3% shooting in the season opener to forcing Boston University to turn the ball over on a whopping 34.6% of its possessions on Nov. 14.
“We couldn’t score because they just take you out of your stuff,” BU head coach Melissa Graves told The Next. Neither could Temple, which didn’t score a single point in the first seven minutes against Princeton on Nov. 23. Even then-No. 22 Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) couldn’t get crucial buckets in a 58-55 home loss to Princeton on Dec. 1: On FGCU’s final two possessions, Princeton forced a turnover, then a near five-second call on an inbounds followed by a heave that came after the buzzer.
“They’re just a great fundamental defensive team that makes you work for everything you get,” said Rhode Island head coach Tammi Reiss, whose team handed Princeton its first loss of the season on Nov. 20. “… It was a dogfight.”
According to Her Hoop Stats, Princeton currently ranks 24th in the country in defensive rating and in the top 40 in steal rate, opponent effective field goal percentage and opponent points per scoring attempt.* The Tigers average 9.5 steals per game, and a whopping four players—forwards Ellie Mitchell and Grace Stone and guards Maggie Connelly and Julia Cunningham—average at least 1.5 steals per game. (Turns out there wasn’t much drop-off after losing defensive savant Carlie Littlefield.)
That defense is the gas that starts the Tigers’ offense, as they score 65.4 points per game and get 16.9 points per game—over one-fourth of their total—off of turnovers. Princeton’s model isn’t that of a single defensive stopper, but rather of a team with no weak links. Mitchell’s team-leading defensive rating of 64.1 ranks in the 98th percentile nationally, and all five starters are in at least the 87th percentile.
This begs the question: How has Princeton been so successful on defense—and how far can it take them?
Much of what Berube preaches on defense comes from her playing days at UConn, where she won a national championship in 1995 and, she said, “learned how important defense is.” From 1993-97, she swiped 141 steals in 138 games while also scoring 1,381 points.
“[Carla] was that glue player. The kid was just a dog,” Reiss said, recalling how her Virginia team narrowly lost to UConn in the 1995 Elite Eight. “Played hard. Just smart … She did everything. Everything no one wanted to do, either. Because you had [Rebecca] Lobo, who was an all-American; you had [Kara] Wolters, who was an all-American; you had probably arguably one of the best point guards in the country in [Jen] Rizzotti. And then Jamelle Elliott and Carla just did everything. You needed a defensive stop, they did it. Rebound, Jamelle did it. Good screen, Carla did it. … They’d do anything the team needed to win. And Carla was that player. She was tough. Very, very tough.”
Berube’s commitment to defense was also influenced by the realities of the schedule at Tufts, which as a Division III school isn’t allowed to hold offseason practices. Each season, the Jumbos got just two weeks of practices before their first game, and Berube decided that the best way to prepare them for games so quickly was to emphasize defense.
“I feel like we had to be good at something to be successful,” she said. “And I always think offense is just a work in progress throughout the season … So we would put a greater focus on the defensive end at the beginning of our season.”
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At Princeton, Berube doesn’t overemphasize defense in the recruiting process. She targets well-rounded players with the work ethic and lateral speed to develop into good defenders, then teaches her principles through a mix of drills and film sessions.
“For the freshmen, it really is just about reps,” Stone, a junior, told The Next. “We do watch film, but I think that it’s, once you’re on court, you’re watching the first group do it, then you see what you need to do. And I think a lot of that is just like, fail, do it again, fail, do it again and—”
“Talk about it,” the sophomore Mitchell finished. “Watch your older players who know how to do it, ask questions. … Trial and error. Eventually you get in the groove.”
Some of those drills focus solely on communication, which is one of Berube’s non-negotiables on defense. She explained that those drills help players “get comfortable speaking and what words you need to be using. [It’s] one thing to talk, and then [it’s] another thing to talk with direction.”
Teaching the newcomers how to play Princeton defense was an especially tall order this season: Because the Ivy League canceled last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Berube has eight freshmen and sophomores who are in their first season of competition. But the stats suggest that it has worked—and one of those newcomers, sophomore Kaitlyn Chen, told The Next that she has fully embraced the Tigers’ defense-first identity.
“Honestly, it’s been so much fun,” she said. “Defense has never been this fun before because we’re always there for each other and we have each other’s back, always. I’ve never played on such a great defensive team. I love it.”
“Carla is an incredible human being—I mean, just a terrific person. And I think the kids relate to that, the kids buy into that,” said Geno Auriemma, Berube’s former coach at UConn. “And she has a quiet way about her about how to get her point across. And that hasn’t changed.
“She was always very, very quiet, very unassuming but was always able to come through in big games and when you really needed her. So there’s that strength of character that she has inside of her that now is, I think, being exhibited by her team.”
Although Princeton doesn’t generally press or trap full-court, its defense is aggressive and suffocating. As Stone put it, “Berube’s style is just, wear you out. [For] 40 minutes, you are going to play hard every possession on defense and you’re going to make every player on offense’s life a living hell. And that was kind of exciting for us because we really like to do that.”
Berube’s primary goal is to force opponents into shot-clock violations by preventing them from getting good shots. FGCU notably struggled with this, as the shot clock repeatedly sounded while a forced Eagles shot was in midair. That happens both because of solid individual defense and excellent help rotations, all built around fundamentals and communication.
“Because we focus so much on defense, we have that next help slide there,” Mitchell said. “And so a lot of teams that we play, they beat their first defender and they’re not expecting to have one of our other teammates there.”
Those rotations can also create live-ball turnovers, especially when paired with the Tigers’ “super active” hands that shrink passing and driving lanes. Mitchell credited the team’s guards with helping her and Stone, who at 6’1 and 5’11 form an undersized starting frontcourt. “Our guards do a great job of taking the opportunistic digs and kind of reaching in there and just swiping the ball out. We can get it and go,” she said.
Opponents have particularly struggled in the first quarter against Princeton, as the Tigers have allowed fewer than 10 points in the first quarter this season and gave up a combined 10 first-quarter points to three straight opponents: Rhode Island, Temple and Maine. That average, and Princeton’s defensive rating, increases in every quarter—though that may be partly a byproduct of five of Princeton’s six wins being by at least 17 points.
|Quarter||Points Allowed Per Game||Defensive Rating|
Stone and Mitchell have been “the backbone” of Princeton’s defense, Berube said, which gives the guards confidence in front of them. Stone played guard as a freshman but has become a mobile, savvy and versatile forward, and she is averaging a team-high 31.6 minutes per game. Using words reminiscent of how Reiss described Berube as a player, Berube said, “Grace kind of does whatever we need her to do.”
Mitchell complements Stone as a tireless worker who leads the team in steals and rebounding. “She’s just constantly active,” Stone said. Mitchell recently set new career highs with six steals against Maine and 15 rebounds—eight defensive—against Rhode Island.
In front of them, Berube noted the defensive improvement of Cunningham and fellow guard Abby Meyers, who are also the Tigers’ top scorers this season. The result is an entire team that communicates, plays as a unit and never takes possessions off.
“Princeton plays hard. It’s why you want to play them,” Reiss said. “They come to compete; man, they battle. And they’re smart. They’ve just got all the components to be a great team.”
Perhaps the only thing that has changed about Berube’s defense over the years is how she and her staff scout opponents. With more film available nowadays, they can scout more extensively and give players detailed, team-specific defensive game plans.
“We’re very defense-specific when we’re going into scout,” Stone said. “And I think that when we are going through it, we’re talking through different scenarios. We’re making sure that everyone knows where they need to be. We’re really good at defending baseline out-of-bounds plays, things like that.”
As a result, opposing coaches said, you have to change your offensive strategy to succeed against the Tigers. Reiss implemented “a little weave action” to try to pull the Tigers out of position before initiating the Rams’ usual offense. Similarly, FGCU head coach Karl Smesko asked his players to make “three really quick passes” before running plays.
“You need a lot of movement. … That’s the only way to get good shots against Princeton,” Smesko said. “If you’re going to just kind of hold the ball and let them see everything that’s going on, they communicate so well and they work so well together that it’s really tough to get good shots … We’re kind of maybe spoiled sometimes when we play [because] we’re able to create shots so quickly. But we knew that wasn’t going to be the case with Princeton.”
The Tigers’ defense has powered them to a 6-2 record so far this season, but it has faltered in both losses, to Rhode Island and Fordham. The two Atlantic 10 teams combined to shoot 46.0% from the floor against the Tigers, and against Fordham, Princeton committed a season-high 21 fouls.
“We started to get a little sloppy. We started to be not so disciplined on defense,” Mitchell said of the Rhode Island game. “I remember they started hitting a couple threes and I just don’t think we responded well. We kind of let our heads drop.”
“Yeah, some breakdowns,” Berube concurred. “… But I always think that an early loss is okay for us to really get better and see where there’s some weaknesses in our game on our defensive end.”
That is the central—and scary—paradox of this Princeton defense: As good as it already is, there is still considerable room for improvement. The Tigers’ first halves show how high their ceiling can be, but they don’t always come out of halftime with the same form. If they can consistently make opponents’ lives “a living hell,” as Stone put it, for a full 40 minutes, it’s hard to envision them not winning an Ivy League title.
“It’s just about pride,” Stone said. “I mean, that’s what our first quarters are is just coming out knowing that we’re the better defensive team and that we can stop them every possession if we wanted to, and just trying to do that.”
*All statistics are as of Dec. 8, 2021.
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. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.