November 27, 2023 

What we learned about Princeton from games against Oklahoma, Indiana

The Tigers split two games against ranked teams in a Thanksgiving tournament

FORT MYERS, Fla. — After Princeton had served up a Thanksgiving win over then-No. 22 Oklahoma in the Fort Myers Tip-Off and the players had run back to the locker room, the Princeton coaches started to walk off the court. They headed toward the section of the bleachers holding their giddy fans, and assistant coach Lauren Battista waved a hand in the air, egging them on. Then three of the smallest fans met head coach Carla Berube — “Mom,” to them — and engulfed her in a group hug.

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The Tigers finished the tournament with that 77-63 win over Oklahoma and a 72-63 loss to then-No. 21 Indiana on Saturday. The Oklahoma win was the fourth top-25 win in program history and the third in the past three years. It was also the program’s second top-25 win in the state of Florida after beating Florida Gulf Coast University in December 2021.

“I said to my team that I’m really proud of them. [These] were two top-25 teams coming into this weekend, and we knew it was going to be hard,” Berube said after Saturday’s game. “But we competed and we’re right there with these teams.”

Here are four takeaways from Princeton’s two games in Fort Myers.

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A wide-range photo showing Princeton guard Kaitlyn Chen dribbling the ball over half court. An Indiana defender gets into a defensive stance several feet in front of her.
Princeton guard Kaitlyn Chen (20) dribbles the ball over half court as teammate Ellie Mitchell runs into position during a game against Indiana at the Fort Myers Tip-Off at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla., on Nov. 25, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Tilley, Intersport)

Princeton is a top-25-caliber team

The most impressive thing about Princeton’s win over Oklahoma wasn’t the result. It was how the Tigers dominated. They never trailed after starting the game on an 17-3 run.

That run didn’t happen because Princeton was on fire offensively — in fact, the Tigers shot 37.5% during the run, lower than their 47.8% shooting for the game overall. But their defense held Oklahoma to 1-for-12 shooting (8.3%) and forced four turnovers during that stretch.

“It gave us a lot of confidence,” sophomore guard Madison St. Rose told The Next about the way they started the game. “We really attacked them hard because we knew that we [could] get past them. And then from there, we just tried to kick or finish at the rim, and we tried to draw those contact fouls. And then I would say on defense, too, we sprinted back to try to stop them in transition … I feel like we really executed that well.”

At the end of the first quarter, Princeton led 23-7. Oklahoma cut the lead to four in the second quarter, but the Tigers quickly pushed the lead back to double digits. In the last 15 minutes of the game, the Sooners never got closer than 11 points, and they trailed by as many as 21.

“Princeton was phenomenal,” Oklahoma head coach Jennie Baranczyk told reporters postgame. “I thought they just totally kicked our tail … They came in and just owned us.”

St. Rose and senior guard Kaitlyn Chen combined to score 44 points on 51.4% shooting from the field, prompting Baranczyk to say they “scored at will.” Senior forward Ellie Mitchell had five points, 18 rebounds, seven assists and four steals — a stat line no other player has put up against a Power Six team since at least 2008-09.

St. Rose and Berube both said that, after a three-point loss at then-No. 3 UCLA on Nov. 17, Princeton focused even more intently on the scouting report and personnel for the Oklahoma game. It showed: Princeton outscored Oklahoma 46-28 in the paint, held Oklahoma to 34.8% shooting overall, and allowed only one Sooner starter to reach double figures.

After receiving six votes in the AP top 25 poll on Nov. 20, Princeton made a statement not only with the Oklahoma win but also by playing Indiana closely. The Tigers demonstrated that they are the team to beat in the Ivy League yet again — they have won the past five regular-season titles and the past four tournament titles — and that they deserve to be ranked in the top 25.

“That’s a fantastic Princeton team,” Indiana head coach Teri Moren said after their matchup. “And if I had to put money on it, I think they’ll be ranked at some point during the season. They are really, really good and talented.”

On Monday, Moren’s prediction came true, as Princeton entered the poll at No. 25.

Indiana guard Yarden Garzon dribbles the ball with her right hand and dips her left shoulder to shield the ball as Princeton guard Chet Nweke slides her feet to defend.
Indiana guard Yarden Garzon (12) drives against Princeton guard Chet Nweke (25) during a game at the Fort Myers Tip-Off at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla., on Nov. 25, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Tilley, Intersport)

The defense can improve

As good as Princeton was against Oklahoma and in the second half against Indiana, the first half against Indiana showed cracks in the Tigers’ defense. The Hoosiers jumped out to an 11-2 lead behind three 3-pointers from guard Sara Scalia, and they led by as many as 20 in the first half as center Mackenzie Holmes also got going offensively.

Scalia finished with 28 points, becoming just the sixth player since Berube arrived in 2019 to score that many against Princeton. She did it on 10-for-17 shooting and added seven rebounds and five assists with zero turnovers. Holmes was similarly efficient with 20 points on 9-for-17 shooting, eight rebounds and four assists.

Princeton sought to double-team Holmes on the low block, but too often the double arrived late or from too far away. As a result, Holmes got layups and found her guards for open threes — the worst-case scenario for Princeton. In the second quarter, Indiana hit 10 of its 12 shots, including all eight of its 2-pointers.

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“[This tournament] showed us there were some things defensively that we need to work on to get better. We’re not where we need to be,” Berube said postgame. “You know how important defense is to me, and we’re not there yet. But … what better way to get better than playing against some of the best players in the country?”

Princeton adjusted defensively in the second half and used a full-court press to give the Hoosiers’ half-court offense less time to operate. The press also forced a few turnovers, generating transition offense for Princeton. As a result, Princeton won the second half by eight points.

“I think that [we] just played at another level, the energy and the commitment to the defensive end and the commitment to how we wanted to guard Holmes, and I think we just did a better job of finding shooters,” Berube said. “… [I’m] upset that we lost, but I love the way that we kept competing.”

Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell stands in front of Oklahoma center Beatrice Culliton with her arms out. Both players look up, awaiting a rebound opportunity.
Princeton forward Ellie Mitchell (00) boxes out Oklahoma center Beatrice Culliton (0) during a game at the Fort Myers Tip-Off at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla., on Nov. 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Tilley, Intersport)

Princeton can still rely on rebounding

Princeton outrebounded Oklahoma by 13 and Indiana by four. It was the only team in its division of the tournament to grab more than half of all available rebounds across the two games, and it turned that into 28 second-chance points.

Rebounding DifferentialRebounding Rate

In large part, the rebounding advantage was due to the 6’1 Mitchell, who could break the program record for career rebounds this season. Wearing knee pads, ankle braces, one elbow pad and tape on her other wrist, she had 18 rebounds against Oklahoma and 16 against Indiana. She grabbed 40.5% of Princeton’s rebounds and 22.5% of all available rebounds in the two games.

“I think I was just trying not to get hit,” Mitchell told The Next after the Oklahoma game. “In the past couple games … I was getting kind of pinned a lot, and so I wanted to kind of avoid that. So as soon as the ball leaves the shooter’s hands, I’m trying to get in position, track it off their hands and go from there.”

“She knew where the ball was going. And if it was out of her area, she was still getting after that. And if someone else got the ball, she was gonna rip it from their hands,” Berube said after the Oklahoma game. “… That’s just Ellie Mitchell. You want her on your team. … She was really, really important in getting second-chance opportunities for us.”

But it wasn’t only Mitchell contributing on the glass: 6’ senior Chet Nweke had 14 total rebounds in the two games, and Chen had six from the point guard spot. 6’4 reserve forward Parker Hill added five in just 10 minutes against Oklahoma.

Princeton has been an elite rebounding team throughout the Berube era, first with three-time Ivy League Player of the Year Bella Alarie and now with Mitchell, so this isn’t a new development. But it bodes well for Princeton that it’s continuing even as Berube uses small lineups at times with Nweke and Mitchell in the frontcourt.

Princeton guard Mari Bickley dribbles the ball with her right hand and holds her left hand up in a fist.
Princeton guard Mari Bickley (24) handles the ball during a game against Oklahoma at the Fort Myers Tip-Off at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla., on Nov. 23, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Tilley, Intersport)

The freshman class could be special

Berube has six freshmen on the roster this season. She needed a big class to help replace five graduated seniors whom she called “our nucleus, our glue, our everything” last season.

This year’s freshmen have a chance to be another special class for Princeton. Guard Skye Belker is a starter and the team’s third-leading scorer, averaging 10.3 points in 26.5 minutes per game. She scored 12 points against Oklahoma and eight against Indiana, shooting over 50% from the field across the two games and adding four total steals.

Fellow guards Mari Bickley and Ashley Chea are key reserves. Bickley is averaging 4.6 points in 9.2 minutes per game but poured in 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting at UCLA. Chea, the backup point guard, is averaging 13.2 minutes per game and scored seven points against Indiana.

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Meanwhile, 6’ wing Fadima Tall has only appeared in one game but has plenty of potential: She is the only Ivy League recruit to make the HoopGurlz top 100 rankings for the class of 2023.

“They’re great, and I think they’re not really missing a beat,” Berube said of her rookies after the Oklahoma game. “… They’re playing pretty freely and not like a typical freshman where you’re like, it’s so tense. And it’s fun to watch.”

“They’ve come really far [already this season]. They have that confidence,” Mitchell said. “… Being able to play on both ends of the court, work really hard and talk, that’s what we need, and they’re doing great. They’re giving us great minutes … so we’re excited about them.”

The freshmen’s contributions, along with St. Rose more than doubling her scoring from last season, have helped Princeton retool offensively. They have also taken some of the load off Chen, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year. Though Chen is still averaging 17.0 points per game, she has only led the Tigers in scoring twice through six games. St. Rose has done it three times, while Belker had a team-high 18 points at Middle Tennessee on Nov. 12.

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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