Princeton women learning to ‘grind’ through improved Ivy League ahead of Penn tilt
Also: Rutgers' huge Sunday, on and off the court.
PRINCETON – Brown was picked eighth of eight in the Ivy League women’s basketball preseason poll. It didn’t show whatsoever early in the third quarter of Saturday’s game at Princeton.
After Princeton held a tenuous four-point halftime lead, the Bears put up a quick five to move in front. They went basket for basket with the Tigers, with Isabella Mauricio’s second 3-pointer of the quarter giving Brown a two-point edge.
That’s when Grace Stone took over, with the help of a friendly bounce. The Princeton guard made back-to-back game-tying jumpers and hit two free throws for a 39-37 lead. On the next possession, Julia Cunningham tried a pass to Parker Hill down low – and it caromed off a defender’s hands and into the far corner, where Stone was waiting all by herself. Her 3-pointer helped put Princeton pretty much in control the rest of the way.
“I was just trying to be in the corner and be shot-ready, and the ball kind of fell in my hands and nobody was around me,” Stone said after scoring a game-high 13 points in Princeton’s 67-54 win. “I was just hoping I made it!”
The Tigers opened the conference season with a 67-59 road loss to Harvard – the program’s first Ivy loss under coach Carla Berube, ending a 42-game winning streak that dated to February 2019. They had to turn around and host Columbia, last season’s runner-up, which was receiving votes in the AP Top 25 poll; Stone’s late 3-pointer dragged that game to overtime before the Lions prevailed 58-55.
Now the Tigers are a hard-earned 2-2 in Ivy play and are preparing Monday to host Penn, which stunned Columbia en route to the only 4-0 record in the league.
Normally the dominant force in the Ivy League, Princeton is in an unfamiliar spot: mid-table, looking up at several rivals who have begun to make up ground.
It’s an understatement to say Princeton has been the best team in the Ivy for several years running. In 14 regular-season games last year, the Tigers averaged a 27-point margin of victory. In the season before the COVID-19 pandemic, they were 23.6 points better than their opponents.
So the two early losses might have shaken this year’s roster. Instead, the Tigers are doing all they can to take it in stride.
“We’re a different team this year and I think we’re playing against different competition this year,” Stone said. “I think that as far as difficulty goes, we’re harder on ourselves than anything else – and I think sometimes we make the game harder for ourselves than anything else. I think this year, so far, we’re what, four or five games in. It’s been difficult for us and I think it’s something that we’re going to have to grind out, these league games. But I think we’re prepared for it and we’re getting better each game.”
It can’t be said better than The Athletic’s Brian Hamilton put it in this preseason profile of the team: “To counter it all, a strategy has emerged in the Ivy League: Become Princeton. Columbia coach Megan Griffith is a former Tigers assistant. Harvard (Carrie Moore) and Yale (Dalila Eshe) both hired former Princeton assistants for head coaching jobs last spring. Princeton’s peers are getting ambitious.”
There’s no doubt to Berube that this is the most competitive Ivy she has seen since taking over the program in 2019.
“From top to bottom, 1 through 8, everybody’s gotten better,” Berube said. “We’ve had our struggles to begin this season with Harvard and with Columbia. … (Penn is) coming in here undefeated in the league. It’s great. It’s tough, but that’s why we played a tough nonconference schedule to get ready for these competitive games and know what it feels like to be in tight games and how you just have to stay poised.”
Nobody treated the end of the unbeaten streak like the sky was falling. After the Harvard loss, Stone said Berube’s message was that the Crimson simply outplayed them, that it “wasn’t Princeton basketball” on the floor that day.
“I think that the next sort of place to go was to try to turn it around and find ourselves again, find our identity,” Stone said.
Berube reminded the players that a long season was still ahead.
“I know a lot of us aren’t used to losing in the league, but it happens and we’re going to be OK,” she said. “We just need to keep taking steps forward and getting better in practice and then in games. I think we have. I think we are getting better and it’s a climb. Sometimes it takes time. I don’t think we’re playing quite our best basketball yet but I think we can get there and I think we’re playing better now than we were at Harvard.”
In years past, Princeton’s offense would be powered by one obvious centerpiece, a Bella Alaire or an Abby Meyers. Junior point guard Kaitlyn Chen is this group’s leading scorer (14.4 ppg) and rising star, but this team spreads the ball around in a noticeable way, with Cunningham (11.2 ppg), Stone (10.8) and freshman Madison St. Rose (7.1) all threats to score.
Chen earned her fourth foul of the Brown game in the third quarter and had to sub out for an extended time. Fortunately for the Tigers, they have team captain Maggie Connolly coming off the bench – sometimes to spell Chen, sometimes to play alongside her.
The senior played crucial minutes down the stretch and finished with seven points, three steals, two assists and no turnovers.
“It’s great having two point guards on the floor at the same time,” Berube said. “Either one can bring the ball up and start our offense. I think it’s a positive when she comes in the game and plays with Kaitlyn. Teams can’t just look and put all their attention onto one player because we have a lot of different scorers.”
Another role player who came up big was forward Chet Nweke, who scored six straight points at the end of the first quarter to create some separation and had a game-high 11 rebounds.
The Quakers (12-5, 4-0 Ivy) pushed through a five-game losing streak against major competition early in the season and haven’t lost since, winning 11 straight. They’re outdoing Princeton on defense, leading the Ivy in scoring defense (56.8 ppg) and field-goal percentage allowed (34.7%). Berube said she’s especially interested to see how the Tigers’ own defense, always her teams’ identity, will respond against a Penn team scoring 66.8 per game with a handful of good shooters.
As Stone put it, the Tigers have come to realize they’re going to get every opponent’s best game.
“Penn’s a really good team,” she said. “Obviously they have a really big win over Columbia and they’re rolling right now and they’re undefeated. I think that we really need to execute well. We need to be really crisp on the offensive end, we need to make good passes to one another, hit shots. And then defensively we really need to talk to each other, communicate, play hard, box out.
“Do all the little things that Princeton basketball always does.”
Hey there, thanks for reading. Let’s clean the glass with a whip around New Jersey:
I want to make the argument that Sunday was the best day in modern Rutgers basketball history. Eclipsing the Scarlet Knights’ last NCAA Tournament win, in 2021 against Clemson. Surpassing both Purdue upsets of the past two seasons. In a vacuum, beating Ohio State by four in overtime was a perfectly nice accomplishment. But it also A) got Rutgers a measure of revenge after the Buckeyes’ win that shouldn’t have been last month; B) all but ensured Rutgers will appear in the AP Top 25 again later today following a weekend of carnage among ranked teams; and C) gave us this Mawot Mag shot-clock-beater that few likely had on their bingo cards, answering my frequent question of “Who else on this team besides Cam Spencer can step up and make clutch shots?”
And putting all of this aside, the bigger news happened away from the court a couple hours later. Reports surfaced (eventually confirmed to 247Sports by the prospect himself) that Class of 2024 five-star Ace Bailey committed to the Scarlet Knights after the game. Rutgers has never had a five-star recruit in its history, never mind a top-10 prospect like Bailey, a 6-foot-10 small forward from Georgia. He’s AAU teammates with 2023 commit Jamichael Davis, which surely helped. He’s now the top overall prospect in the ’24 class to give a commitment anywhere – and instead of Kansas or Kentucky or Texas or Memphis, he picked Rutgers, the only Big Ten or Northeastern school in his top 12. Oh, to travel back in time 20 or 10 or even five years and attempt to tell someone that Rutgers basketball scooped up a five-star recruit. Could this make the program any better-positioned to land fellow five-star Dylan Harper?
Don’t let this get lost in the shuffle: Rider stunned Iona, 70-67. On the road. After trailing by 18 in the second half. Yes. Dwight Murray Jr. is that dude:What would you say if I told you just hit a shot to beat Iona. AGAIN! BRONCS WIN! Final score presented by Mercer-Bucks Orthopaedics
That’s two straight meetings – once in Atlantic City, once in New Rochelle – in which Murray knocked down a game-winning shot in the final seconds for Rider to pull the upset. This Broncs team is never out of a game thanks to their variety of options from behind the arc. Adetokunbo Bakare went 3-for-3 on 3-pointers in a span of 2:18 to tie the game. Those were the only nine points the NJIT transfer scored, tying a career high. But I remember being impressed by how hard he was going in practice the day I visited in late October. Great to see him have his moment.
Seton Hall might have a chance Wednesday against stumbling UConn. Once the No. 2 team in the country, the Huskies have had a plethora of cracks start to show in their foundation. They’ve lost four of their last five, most surprisingly Sunday at home against St. John’s, 85-74. I don’t know if Seton Hall has enough size in the post to match up with Adama Sanogo, but UConn has been turnover-prone, giving it up 21 times Sunday, and the Pirates’ defense has the tools to capitalize on that. I’ll be at the Prudential Center for that one for Field Level Media and Guarden State.