Dissecting the Madness: Princeton’s historic sweep and Rutgers’ NIT-mare
"Princeton basketball has a long history. This one's for everybody, in particular for Coach Carril."
PRINCETON – It isn’t easy winning all these Ivy League championships, Carla Berube swears.
Nothing about Saturday night’s 54-48 win against pesky third seed Harvard looked easy, to be fair. But as Berube improved to 74-11 over three seasons as Princeton’s head coach since 2019-20, as her team celebrated its fifth Ivy championship – three regular-season titles, two tournament titles – in five chances, the questions naturally skewed toward the women’s basketball program’s unmatched track record.
“Just because we saw success last year, it doesn’t just roll over into the next season,” Berube said. “It takes time, it takes just work to develop the important chemistry that you need. And they did that.”
The Princeton women were given a No. 10 seed in their latest trip to the NCAA Tournament, with a first-round game against NC State set for Friday. On Sunday, the Princeton men joined them, at last overcoming their most annoying opponent and earning their first NCAA berth since 2017.
I wrote on Twitter Sunday that this weekend will go down in the history books here. Princeton hosted two Ivy League tournaments; the men and women went 4-0. The same school swept the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments for the first time since Ivy Madness was introduced in 2017.
And it all happened less than a year after Pete Carril, the Princeton legend for whom the court is named, passed away.
“It means a lot to our community here,” Mitch Henderson told the TV broadcast amid the celebration. “Twenty-nine Ivy League titles. Princeton basketball has a long history. This one’s for everybody, in particular for Coach Carril. We were wearing that bowtie on our uniforms this year. He’d be the happiest.”
After Harvard stunned Columbia 72-65 in overtime in the semifinals and ruined the second-seeded Lions’ chances of making the NCAAs, the Crimson controlled a good portion of the middle of the championship game. Princeton star Kaitlyn Chen scored 13 in the first quarter, yes, but Harvard answered with a 17-5 second quarter to take a nine-point halftime lead. The Tigers trailed by 11 late in the third.
The famed Princeton defense kicked in, holding Harvard to 1-of-12 shooting for the fourth quarter, but the Tigers needed more shots to go if they stood any chance. Maggie Connolly made the team’s only three of the period; most of Princeton’s comeback came down low and at the foul line.
Ellie Mitchell, known more for her rebounding and her defense than her scoring, showed what she can do with the ball down low. I tweeted this after she made the Tigers’ first basket of the quarter – right before Mitchell snagged an offensive board to set up Connolly’s three. They went to her in the same spot again during the final minute to move ahead 49-48, their first lead since 19-17.
Check out this pass from Grace Stone, splitting three defenders, giving Mitchell about three seconds to get the shot up:
Perhaps more importantly, Mitchell was fouled at the other end and forced to the line. She entered the day a 46.4% free-throw shooter.
“I was on the opposite end of the end of the court, so I’m walking up to the foul line,” Mitchell said later. “I’ve struggled throughout my career with foul shots. You know, we practice situations like this all the time in practice. All my teammates came up to me, said ‘You got this, put them in, they’re going in. We love you, you got this.’ Trying not to think too much. I think when I overthink, then I really get in my head.”
“I turned to Julia (Cunningham),” Chen added, “and I was like, Ellie’s making these two.”
She did. Princeton had completed the comeback.
Berube laughed as she told a reporter she was “not on any revenge tour.” But she admitted it was a full-circle moment, how Princeton had lost to Harvard to begin the Ivy schedule this season – ending an unthinkable 42-game Ivy League winning streak – and defeated the Crimson for the title.
She said that her coaching staff doesn’t get nearly enough credit, that assistant coach Lauren Battista “works with Ellie all the time on her shots and her free throws.” You think that made a difference Saturday night?
“We struck some adversity … early in the Ivy League season,” Berube said. “That makes it really sweet that we came from that point and just came together, like I talked about. It was really important for us to, yeah, do it together. Figure this out together.”
I don’t know how hard the women’s team celebrated Saturday night, but Berube was on hand bright and early the next morning for the men’s final against Yale. The quick turnarounds became a theme of the weekend, but perhaps that’s nothing that Ivy League basketball teams can’t handle when they play several back-to-backs over the course of the regular season.
When Princeton got past Penn in the semifinals for the third time this season, the Tigers knew Yale was waiting for them in the final – a chance for them to avenge last season’s two-point loss in the tournament final. Tosan Evbuomwan readily admitted he and his teammates had the game “circled for a while,” long before the matchup was actually finalized.
Evbuomwan was also asked whether having to yield his Ivy League Player of the Year crown from 2021-22 to Penn’s Jordan Dingle this season gave him any motivation when facing the Quakers. I loved his answer.
“My focus remains on the team,” he said. “Last year the Player of the Year went home early with his team.”
We should have expected, then, that Evbuomwan would play like a man possessed Sunday. He was by far the most dominant player on the court en route to finishing with 21 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Freshman Caden Pierce secured his second double-double of the tournament, joining Evbuomwan on the all-tournament team, and Matt Allocco and Ryan Langborg combined for five threes and 29 points in the 74-65 victory.
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Yale entered the game having won 10 of the previous 11 meetings with Princeton. But you got the sense early on that the Tigers were at last ready to put a stop to that run. Especially having blown a 19-point lead to the Bulldogs at Jadwin three weeks prior. And especially with the home crowd on their side.
The home refs, some might add. Keeshawn Kellman drew a crucial charge call at the end of the Penn game, which Henderson jokingly called the first of Kellman’s career. Then Sunday, Yale coach James Jones had a fair point when saying he didn’t think one block/charge call went the Bulldogs’ way the entire game.
But as Jones and others would admit, there was much more to it than that. Henderson had a great strategic day, as his plan to have Evbuomwan guard John Poulakidas paid off handsomely. A hot shooter, Poulakidas burned the Tigers for 30 points three weeks prior and scored 25 in the semifinals, but Evbuomwan’s wingspan and even some help from Kellman on the perimeter limited Poulakidas’ looks. He scored seven on 2-of-7 shooting.
“I think it’s just team defense, and that’s what it’s been all season,” Evbuomwan said. “It’s never one guy’s job and guys are always in there helping one another. I know I have a lot of confidence in guys helping behind me, so it gave me a lot of confidence to press up and take some his shots away.”
The Tigers are almost definitely under-seeded in the NCAA Tournament as a 15. They have to head cross-country on a short turnaround to face No. 2 seed Arizona in the first round in Sacramento.
Then again, what’s another short turnaround when you’re riding high off an Ivy League tournament title?
If you made it this far, I have to imagine you’re a heartbroken/disgruntled Rutgers fan hopelessly in search of some answers.
On one hand, I don’t know how Nevada – the fourth-best team in the Mountain West, owners of one nice win over San Diego State, multiple Quad 3 losses and a current three-game losing streak – ends up in the NCAA field over a team like Rutgers.
I don’t know how the committee can say that yes, we considered Rutgers’ injuries – which would imply not only the lack of Mawot Mag in recent losses to Nebraska and Minnesota but also the absences of Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy in November’s six-point, neutral-floor loss to Temple – and we still determined they weren’t worthy of a bid.
On the other, this is what can happen when you don’t schedule tougher competition in the nonconference portion of the year. The committee had to look somewhere to sift through all these Big Ten teams with records between 11-8 (Michigan State) and 10-10 (Penn State, etc.).
Rutgers’ best game out of conference was the road trip to Miami (brought to you not by Steve Pikiell’s scheduling but by the ACC/Big Ten Challenge), which they lost by seven. I get that the Scarlet Knights arranged a two-year series with Wake Forest figuring the Demon Deacons would be better than they were this season. And I know they had a plan in place to take on Gonzaga on a quasi-neutral court in Seattle, which Gonzaga had to back out of.
But going forward, the Scarlet Knights have nothing to gain by playing six nonconference Quad 4 games, teams like Coppin State and Bucknell and Sacred Heart. Their 314th-ranked nonconference strength of schedule does them no favors once it’s time for the Big Ten season.
To be clear, expressing surprise about Rutgers’ snub isn’t New Jersey homerism or message-board griping. Bracket analysts were just as surprised as the rest of us. Fox Sports, ESPN and The Athletic all pegged Rutgers in the field as of Saturday and Sunday, even in the “last four byes” in some cases. The numerous Quad 1 and 2 wins were supposed to protect RU from the negatives of the resume.
Then the committee zagged. So next year, don’t let your resume have this many negatives. Don’t be the team that gets caught looking vs. Minnesota, and more importantly, don’t set up so many cupcakes.
Rutgers received a No. 1 seed in the NIT and will host Hofstra Tuesday night. North Carolina set a disappointing precedent by declining its invitation to the NIT, something that just wasn’t done outside of the COVID-marred season. The Tar Heels might think they’re too good for it, and even some Rutgers fans on social media might feel they are too – but first, please consider what Pikiell told reporters on Zoom Sunday night:
“I want Caleb and Paul to play as many games as they can. I obviously don’t want this season to end. This group has done a lot of great things for us and to have an opportunity to play a home game for those guys would be very important. I would love for them to take advantage of postseason play.
“I’m not apologizing for postseason play here at Rutgers, but obviously our goal in the beginning of the year was the NCAA Tournament, but we will have to shift quickly.”
Happy Monday, and thanks for reading. So much transpired in college hoops over the past several days that there was no way I would smoothly cover it all, so check back in Thursday morning (before the true start of March Madness, the Maryland Terrapins kicking off the Round of 64) for some more stories and nuggets about the N.J. teams playing this postseason.
I’ll leave you with this final count of D1 Jersey teams whose seasons are still going:
Men’s NCAA Tournament berths: 2 (No. 15 Princeton, No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson)
Women’s NCAA Tournament berths: 2 (No. 10 Princeton, No. 16 Monmouth)
Men’s NIT berths: 2 (Rutgers, Seton Hall)
Women’s NIT berths: 2 (Seton Hall, Fairleigh Dickinson)