March 24, 2024 

Facing relentless West Virginia press, Princeton comes up empty-handed in NCAA Tournament

Princeton navigated the press for a half on Saturday but couldn’t secure a third straight first-round win

IOWA CITY, Iowa — After Princeton senior forward Ellie Mitchell fouled out of a first-round NCAA Tournament loss on Saturday with 27 seconds left, she sat down on the bench and draped a March Madness-branded towel over her head. She held the ends of the towel over the bottom half of her face. And as she watched Princeton and West Virginia slog through four more sets of free throws in the final seconds, she wiped her eyes and took deep breaths.

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Still, when a timeout was called between all those free throws, Mitchell was the first Tiger off the bench to high-five her teammates, even as she sniffled back tears.

In the end, No. 9 seed Princeton fell to No. 8 seed West Virginia 63-53. It was the Tigers’ first loss in the first round over the last three seasons, despite earning their best seed since entering the tournament undefeated in 2015.

“This stings. I didn’t think our season would be over tonight,” Princeton head coach Carla Berube told reporters postgame. “But it’s basketball. Things happen.”

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On Saturday, two of the country’s stingier defenses battled: West Virginia ranks fourth nationally in points allowed per 100 possessions, while Princeton ranks 36th.

“Both teams I think are really good defensively. We just do it completely opposite ways,” West Virginia head coach Mark Kellogg told reporters on Friday. His Mountaineers use multiple full-court presses to force 23.9 turnovers per game, the second-most in the nation.

“We love getting out there, getting steals and pushing the ball to get easy transition points,” guard JJ Quinerly said on Friday. “That’s really our identity.”

Princeton, meanwhile, is smothering in the halfcourt, particularly inside the arc. Opponents shoot just 26.8% on 2-pointers, a top-30 mark nationally, and rarely get offensive rebounds to create extra chances.

The Mountaineers’ style of defense was always going to be a challenge for Princeton to prepare for. On Friday, Berube couldn’t recall the last time her team had been pressed as relentlessly for 40 minutes as West Virginia does, though the Tigers had faced pressure in spurts this season. Taking care of the ball was a major focus for the Tigers all week leading up to the game.

The Tigers looked calm and prepared early in Saturday’s game. In the first quarter, they committed only two turnovers, and both were dead-ball turnovers, which prevented the Mountaineers from running in transition. Princeton often used Mitchell to inbound and help break the press, something Berube had hinted at on Friday by talking up her forward’s passing and dribbling skills.

Princeton also got three straight defensive stops to open the game, which set the tone for a half in which they led for nearly 19 of 20 minutes. The lead swelled to as many as nine with 6:41 left in the second quarter, but the Mountaineers cut it to two at halftime on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from guard Jordan Harrison.

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The game seemed to flip in the third quarter, as the West Virginia press began to wreak havoc. Kellogg told his players at halftime that they didn’t look like themselves defensively, and they responded. The Mountaineers also made a few tactical adjustments based on how Princeton had broken their presses in the first half. And it snowballed, with better pressure leading to more scoring opportunities and those scores allowing West Virginia to set up more pressure.

West Virginia went on a 13-0 run shortly after halftime, taking a 37-29 lead that it wouldn’t relinquish. Princeton had six turnovers in under three and a half minutes in the third quarter, which was one more than its total in the first half and nearly halfway to its season average for turnovers per game (13.2).

In the third quarter overall, Princeton had 12 turnovers, eight fouls and just seven points.

“I thought that we had a good game plan. They just … turned that pressure up, and yeah, [we] just got a little bit careless,” Berube said. “There’s a couple times they just kind of ripped it from us as well.”

In some of its 1-2-2 traps after halftime, West Virginia was so aggressive that all five players were positioned in the backcourt, which drastically shrunk the space Princeton had to work with. The Tigers responded at times with passes over the top or quick one-two passes to break free, but West Virginia got plenty of deflections as well. Other times, breaking the press ate up the clock for Princeton’s halfcourt offense, leading to two shot-clock violations in the half.

The defensive pressure, along with a relative lack of foul calls in a very physical game, seemed to cause some frustration for Princeton in the second half. In the fourth quarter, for example, Princeton rebounded its own missed free throw, only for freshman guard Ashley Chea to turn the ball over on a baseline drive as she was being pushed. After Chea landed facedown on the baseline, she slapped both hands against the floor before pushing herself up to run back on defense.

Princeton settled down somewhat in the fourth quarter, even offering some light pressure of its own to try to close the gap. But it couldn’t get closer than six points.

Princeton guard Madison St. Rose shoots a jump shot as a Penn defender can't contest it in time. Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell (right) runs toward the rim from near the baseline.
Princeton guard Madison St. Rose (23) shoots a jump shot as forward Ellie Mitchell (right) runs toward the rim during an Ivy League Tournament semifinal against Penn at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 15, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

The guard duo of sophomore Madison St. Rose and senior Kaitlyn Chen handled the bulk of the scoring for the Tigers. St. Rose had 22 points on 5-for-18 shooting and drew six West Virginia fouls. Chen had 17 points on 7-for-16 shooting, two assists and two steals. No other Princeton player had more than five points.

Kellogg said postgame that Chen and St. Rose’s midrange game made them particularly tough to defend. “That ability to get in the midrange … scares you, and so then you play off of them,” he said. “… I have not seen a team as good at midrange as Princeton, really probably ever in our scouting.”

Mitchell contributed three points, 15 rebounds (eight offensive) and five assists. She battled for all 37 minutes she played, and in the first half, she forced Kellogg to try a two-big lineup because of her dominance on the glass.

Late in the second quarter, for example, Mitchell got an offensive rebound in traffic. She got knocked down but kept possession, and before she realized the officials had called a foul, she used a bowling-like motion to get the ball safely to a teammate on the perimeter.

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In Princeton’s postgame press conference and locker room, there was the raw pain of a season and players’ careers ending. The fact that the Tigers had lost because of an out-of-control few minutes was like putting rubbing alcohol on the wound.

“Some of those mistakes in the third quarter made it tough to come back from,” Mitchell said. “It hurts to look back at that since it was a lot of controllables.”

But in her opening statement, Berube sought to frame the loss as one tough result in “an amazing season.” After all, the Tigers went 25-5, while playing a brutal nonconference schedule in which they traveled nearly 10,000 miles. They won their sixth straight regular-season Ivy League title and their fifth straight conference tournament title. All of that came with several underclassmen playing key roles, including St. Rose, Chea and freshman starting guard Skye Belker.

Now, that youth has a taste of that March experience — and March heartbreak.

“I’m assuming that Maddie [St. Rose] is like, Let’s go! I’m sure she can’t wait to get back now and get back to work and lead a younger group,” Berube said. “And I think they’re going to be hungry for more. That’s just the way we do it at Princeton.”

The hard part, St. Rose said, will be doing it without the graduating senior class of Chen, Mitchell and guard/forward Chet Nweke. That trio has been inseparable: Mitchell said earlier in the year that they can rarely be found on campus without at least one of the other two. And they have helped lead Princeton’s dominance over the past three seasons, winning over 82% of their games in that span.

“Without them, I wouldn’t be the player I am today,” St. Rose said. “And just moving forward and thinking about how much we’re about to lose, and how much … heart and just, I don’t know, life that these seniors have put into this team, it’s really going to suck. And I’m really going to miss them so much.”

Princeton seniors Chet Nweke, Ellie Mitchell and Kaitlyn Chen smile for a photo with the Ivy League Tournament trophy. Mitchell and Chen have streamers around their necks, and Mitchell has the net that the Tigers cut down also around her neck.
Princeton seniors (from left) Chet Nweke, Ellie Mitchell and Kaitlyn Chen pose for a photo with the Ivy League Tournament trophy and their March Madness “tickets” after the championship game against Columbia at Levien Gymnasium in New York, N.Y., on March 16, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

For Berube, too, it hurts to close the book on those careers. She loses Mitchell, the three-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and the last player left who was around for Berube’s first season in 2019-20. 

If Mitchell was the security blanket defensively, Chen was the same offensively. Chen was Berube’s starting point guard for the past 2.5 seasons, the 2023 Ivy League Player of the Year, and the three-time Ivy League Tournament Most Outstanding Player.

And Berube loses Nweke, a selfless leader who played whatever position the team needed and epitomized staying ready. Nweke only became a starter on Jan. 20, but she seized her role, upping her scoring from 3.1 points per game as a reserve to 9.8 as a starter.

“You couldn’t find three people that care more, that want to be great, that get in the gym and [that are] just amazing people to be around,” Berube said. “… They’ve left a great legacy and a blueprint on how you go about things, how you work, how you care about this program and your teammates and your coaches.”

As Berube spoke about the seniors, she sat alone on the dais, as St. Rose and Chen had already come and gone. She tried to keep her voice steady, but her eyes wandered. And when she talked about Chen, her eyes drifted in the direction of her point guard’s empty seat and the nameplate that had marked her presence.

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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