Madison St. Rose and a Princeton freshman year to remember
“I feel like we have a chance of winning and I’m confident enough that we’re gonna pour our hearts out on the floor, so that’s all I can ask for.”
Growing up in Old Bridge, Madison St. Rose was plenty familiar with the reputation of Princeton women’s basketball as the cream of the crop in the Ivy League, a program that consistently wins league titles and makes NCAA Tournaments.
So when Princeton first made contact with St. Rose, there was a strong connection right away. By that time, she was a star guard at St. John Vianney High School in Holmdel, one of the winningest high school programs anywhere in New Jersey.
“Why not keep staying with it?” St. Rose put it to me on Monday. “Because winning’s fun.”
And the winning continued. St. Rose – who was a three-time NJ.com Player of the Year, New Jersey’s Gatorade Player of the Year and the No. 46-ranked recruit in her class by ESPNW – didn’t take long to make her mark, work her way into the starting lineup and take home Ivy League Rookie of the Year honors.
Her free throws at the end of Saturday night’s Ivy League championship game were the final two points Princeton needed to secure its comeback victory over Harvard, sending the Tigers on their 10th trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“As a freshman coming in I never really knew what to expect,” St. Rose said. “To play against Harvard and come back from an 11-point deficit to beat them in the fourth quarter, I couldn’t ask for a better way to spend my freshman year playing basketball.”
Senior Julia Cunningham recalled the early impression St. Rose made during the preseason.
“I remember we played in our first scrimmage in November, maybe late October,” Cunningham said. “She had like 17 points, five rebounds. I said, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’
“And then I think obviously being a freshman in college, there’s a little bit of a learning curve that comes with it. Just playing against girls that are four, at this point five years older than you with their COVID years, there’s a little bit of an adjustment. And I think she’s just taken everything in. She’s a sponge, she’s learning a lot.”
Forward Paige Morton started Princeton’s first eight games with fellow big Ellie Mitchell and Cunningham, Kaitlyn Chen and Grace Stone on the outside. But after St. Rose turned in some good shooting performances off the bench, coach Carla Berube decided to try her in the starting lineup instead of Morton, creating a four-out, one-in formation.
St. Rose said she was surprised to be given her first collegiate start Dec. 11 against Delaware.
“I had a feeling that if I just worked hard, I’ll even get a chance to play,” she said. “But to finally get into that starting role as a freshman that’s huge for me, because even in high school I wasn’t (always) a starter, I came off the bench. For my coaches to have that much confidence in me, it kind of says a lot.”
Not unlike Princeton’s other Ivy League Rookie of the Year, Caden Pierce of the men’s team, St. Rose improved as the season progressed. In four straight Ivy League games in January and early February, she shot 50 percent from the floor and scored 15 points or more. As of now, she’s averaging 9.3 points per game – and 15.3 points per 40 minutes, a sign of things to come as her role expands in future seasons.
Cunningham and her upperclassman teammates agreed that St. Rose’s defense also shot up a couple levels during Ivy Madness.
“On defense, I feel like I’ve definitely improved,” St. Rose said. “I’m a lot more confident with keeping my girl in front of me and also knowing my rotations to help my teammates out.”
“We have a very set defensive scheme that we like to stick to,” Cunningham said. “We have these principles that we always stick to and it’s hard for freshmen to come in and learn all of that in the short preseason that we have. We’re not here over the summer like the other Power Five schools, right, so she has a limited time to learn all that stuff.
“I think this weekend was just a culmination of all of that and she put out a really great defensive performance.”
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Like St. Rose, Cunningham is also a Jersey native, hailing from Watchung (and another proponent in my corner that “Central Jersey exists”). She was grateful for the local support she, St. Rose and the Tigers’ program in general have received.
“One of her first basketball coaches was here over the weekend,” Cunningham said. “My high school vice principal was here watching the game. I think it’s nice to have that local community being able to support you at home games. … I’m a big New Jersey girl through and through, so I love that. I hope they keep recruiting out of New Jersey, see the pipeline continue a little bit.”
St. Rose figures to play a crucial role in the future of the Tigers’ backcourt as they watch Stone, Cunningham and captain Maggie Connolly graduate after this season.
But first, everyone’s focus is on Princeton’s first-round game against NC State Friday in Salt Lake City. The Wolfpack have been a premier outfit in women’s basketball for years, adding yet another layer to St. Rose’s “dream” first season of college ball.
“I’m most just looking forward to the environment and playing against really talented basketball players,” St. Rose said. “I’ve always watched NC State on TV when I was in high school and I know how much talent they had throughout the years, so to play against them is like a dream come true. I’m just really excited for my team. I feel like we have a chance of winning and I’m confident enough that we’re gonna pour our hearts out on the floor, so that’s all I can ask for.”
Good morning! If you can’t get out of bed for the first day of the Round of 64, with tournament games from noon to midnight, are you even really a college basketball fan?
Rutgers and Seton Hall had their disappointing seasons come to a crash landing Tuesday night in narrow losses in the first round of the NIT. But I most likely will spend more time on each team in some offseason previews after the dust has settled from the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, let’s devote our focus to the teams still standing. Consider the following a viewing guide for the six Division I programs in New Jersey playing tournament basketball in the coming days. Here’s how to watch the local teams’ upcoming games, along with one factoid about each:
No. 15 Princeton
vs. No. 2 Arizona
Thursday, 4:10 p.m. ET, TNT
One thing to know: Princeton ranked 10th in Division I this season with 39.31 rebounds per game. But Pierce, Tosan Evbuomwan and Keeshawn Kellman will be up against an Arizona team that ranked ninth with a nearly identical 39.38 per game. Oumar Ballo (7-foot, playing through a broken hand) and Azuolas Tubelis (6-foot-11) will have a height advantage on the Tigers.
No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson
vs. No. 1 Purdue
Friday, 6:50 p.m. ET, TNT
One thing to know: Fairleigh Dickinson had the highest press rate in the country this season, pressing on defense 53.5% of the time. I wrote about FDU’s press here last month. In last night’s runaway 84-61 win over Texas Southern in the First Four, that press helped force 14 turnovers that turned into 15 FDU points. Guess what Purdue’s greatest weakness has been? I am nowhere near brave enough to pick the second 16-over-1 upset in tournament history, but Tobin Anderson likes his chances:
No. 16 Monmouth
vs. No. 16 Tennessee Tech (First Four)
Thursday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
One thing to know: Monmouth took down each of the top three seeds in the CAA tournament en route to winning four times in four days to win the league title in their first year as members. They thrashed top-seeded Towson 80-55 in the championship game to clinch this tourney berth. The Hawks go deep, with eight active players averaging at least 4.5 points per game and three averaging more than five rebounds.
No. 10 Princeton
vs. No. 7 NC State
Friday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2
One thing to know: Now on a 15-game winning streak, the Tigers rank top-10 in the country in points per game allowed (52.5, fifth), field goals allowed (19.2, seventh) and field-goal attempts allowed (51.8, ninth). The opposing Wolfpack have scored in the 60s four of their last five games and don’t often rebound their missed shots (ranked 210th in offensive boards).
vs. Saint Joseph’s
Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, FloHoops
One thing to know: Seton Hall is back in the WNIT after making a run to the tournament’s title game a season ago. Lauren Park-Lane opened last year’s WNIT by scoring 29, 22, 29 and 29 points in the Pirates’ first four games.
Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN3
One thing to know: The Knights received a tough draw against a Columbia team likely to be angry about missing the NCAA Tournament once again. The good news: They’re the best 3-point defending team in women’s basketball. They let a mere 22.4% of 3-point tries go in, an average of just 3.3 threes per game.