In an upset-filled March Madness, it seemed for much of the first-round matchup that Princeton (11th seed) would pull off the upset against West Virginia University (6). Despite valiant offensive and defensive efforts by the Tigers, WVU eked out a 74-65 win.
The Princeton women's basketball team, playing in the St. John Arena at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, made an impressive start. Senior guard/forward Annie Tarakchianopened the contest with a wide-open layup, followed by a jumper by senior forward Alex Wheatley. The Mountaineers responded with a three-pointer meant to prevent an extended Princeton run, but Wheatley came back with back-to-back two-pointers.
“We knew we had to stick to our game plan and stay to our principles to play a 5-vs-5 game,” Tarakchian said. “Our game plan was to stay to what we do best and use our discipline and the strength in our skill set to combat their athleticism.”
In retrospect, the first three minutes typified the overall nature of the game. Princeton would go on a run, only to have West Virginia regain momentum with a big shot. Tarakchian and Wheatley were both explosive on offense and accounted for many of Princeton’s points, but their plays in the paint were challenged by West Virginia’s shots beyond the arc.
Princeton led the first quarter on a seven-point run that started with a layup by junior guard Vanessa Smith and a three-pointer by senior guard Michelle Miller. The Tigers took the first five points of the second quarter to create more distance, but WVU responded with five consecutive points of their own. A massive three-pointer by West Virginia’s senior guard Bria Holmes gave her team its first lead of the game. Wheatley retook the narrow lead with a jumper, but WVU got the last shot of the period and ended the first half with a one-point edge.
West Virginia gained steam in the second half, starting with a 9-2 run. Princeton then retook the lead on a 9-0 run. However, the Mountaineers squeezed in one more 8-0 run in the third quarter to gain a seven-point lead. A layup by senior guard Taylor Williams and another layup by Tarakchian closed the gap at the end of the quarter.
Entering the final stanza, WVU led by three points, so the game was still too close to call. A big three-pointer by sophomore guard Chania Ray ushered in a 9-0 WVU run, giving the Mountaineers a double-digit lead for the first time. Tarakchian, going for her big shots, dampened WVU’s momentum with a three-pointer and assist with Vanessa Smith.
“We had to be aggressive on the offensive end, so when I found daylight, I took the shot,” Tarakchian said.
The teams exchanged points for a bit before a three-pointer by sophomore guard Tia Weledji pulled Princeton to within five points. Another Wheatley layup put the game back within reach with just under a minute to go, but Princeton could not get the five points needed to tie up the game. West Virginia once again created a 10-point margin with 23 seconds left. Princeton’s junior guard Taylor Brown finished the game with a layup.
The Princeton team has every reason to be proud. The Tigers stuck to what they do best on offense and greatly improved their defense from the Penn game on Mar. 8.
“We zoned them most of the game just because of their athleticism, and we had practiced that all week,” Tarakchian said.
The Princeton defense forced WVU to 28.1 percent shooting in the first half. The Princeton offense put up 42.6 percent shooting overall.
If anything, it was WVU’s impressive offense in the second half that changed the game. The Mountaineers improved to 51.7 percent shooting in the second half and stepped up their defense to disrupt Princeton’s plays. Several long shots gave WVU its edge.
“They hit a few big shots and went up by ten,” Tarakchian said. “They had one more run than we did. I think if you gave us five more minutes, we could have gone on our own run, but they hit a couple more shots than we did.”
“Our defense was pretty solid the whole way through,” she continued. “Good teams and good players like that will hit big shots when they need to, so kudos to them.”
And so the game that no one thought Princeton would play turned out to be an exciting and competitive matchup. For the seniors, it was a chance to cap off an incredible career and give it their all one more time.
This senior class has earned two Ivy League Championships and three trips to the NCAA Tournament. And of course, it gave Princeton the greatest season in Ivy League basketball history, with an undefeated record and the first NCAA Tournament win in program history. These accomplishments culminated in another record-breaker: the first at-large bid in the Ivy League.
“When it comes to an end, it just doesn’t feel real,” Tarakchian admitted, but for her, excitement still lies ahead in seeing how far her younger teammates will go.
“I’m excited for them to now progress on their journey and show what they got because we got a feisty group,” she said. “It’ll be fun to watch in these coming years.”