For the first 35 minutes of Sunday evening’s Ivy women’s basketball tournament championship in New Haven, Princeton (22–9, 12–2 Ivy) and Penn (23–6, 12–2) looked about as evenly matched as two teams could. In the final five minutes, Princeton proved that it deserved to repeat as tournament champion.
The Tigers outscored Penn 21–7 in the fourth quarter, pulling away from the Quakers late in the game to earn a 65–54 win and an automatic NCAA tournament bid.
“Everyone who watched that game saw two really good basketball teams that play both sides of the ball with great toughness and discipline,” said head coach Courtney Banghart. “I think Ivy League basketball was in good display.”
Junior forward Bella Alarie had 25 points for Princeton, senior guard Gabrielle Rush had 18, and sophomore guard Carlie Littlefield had 13, all in the second half. The big shot, though, was not hit by one of Princeton’s stars, but by first-year guard Julia Cunningham. With 2:19 to play and Princeton up by one possession, she nailed a three-pointer to give her team a 58–52 lead. Princeton made its free throws in the game’s final minutes to secure the win.
“[Cunningham] hit that huge three for us, which gave us momentum going into the rest of the game,” Alarie said. “We just at the end wanted it so much more, and I could tell. I think that was the difference.”
The game featured a clash between Alarie, the Ivy League Player of the Year, and Penn’s Eleah Parker, the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, who anchored the Ivy League’s best defense entering the game. Alarie clearly got the better of the encounter. In addition to her 25 points, she held Parker to 10 points on 5–23 shooting. Alarie was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after the game.
“It doesn't hurt to have Bella Alarie on your team,” said Banghart. “Eleah Parker is really good, [and] Bella is one of the few people in the country that can guard her.”
From the start, the game was a fast-paced back-and-forth affair. The teams traded the lead seven times in the first half, and Princeton held a 19–17 lead after the first quarter. In the second, Penn switched into a zone defense, which slowed down the Princeton offense. The Quakers went on a 9–0 run midway through the quarter and took a six-point lead with a minute remaining in the half before Princeton ended the half with five straight points, including a Gabrielle Rush buzzer-beater three. The Quakers took a 31–30 lead into halftime.
Fueled by a string of offensive rebounds, Penn outscored Princeton 16–14 in the third quarter to take a 47–44 lead. With five minutes remaining the score was locked at 51. Then, Rush hit a jumper, Littlefield hit a layup, and Cunningham hit the dagger, giving Princeton a comfortable six-point lead with two minutes to play.
Princeton stepped up its defense in the fourth quarter, playing tighter on Penn’s ball screens. The Tigers held Penn to seven points in the quarter and just one made field goal.
“We knew where they were going to hurt us, and we just locked down,” Rush said about the team’s fourth-quarter defensive effort. “That's a testament to us not just being a good offensive team, but being a good defensive team and getting stops when it mattered the most.”
This was the third consecutive year that Princeton and Penn met in the tournament finals, but the first time the game happened away from the Palestra. The teams played at Yale’s John J. Lee Amphitheater, the host site of the 2019 tournaments. Despite the neutral court, Princeton enjoyed a significant fan section behind its bench.
With the win, Princeton earned the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The team will find out its first-round opponent during tomorrow’s selection show. The Tigers had a chance to make the tournament with a loss as an at-large team, but doing it this way is certainly less stressful.
“This is how we wanted to get to the tournament,” Alarie said. “We were co-champions in the regular season, so this is proof that we're the best in this league this year, and we really did deserve that ticket.”
Princeton will play in the tournament for the second year in a row and for the eighth time in the past ten years. Princeton is currently on a 12-game winning streak, but struggled through its non-conference schedule with Alarie out due to injury and started 2–2 in Ivy play. For Banghart, this team’s eventual success was anything but obvious.
“In November, I don’t think I would have thought I’d be sitting here,” Banghart said. “So this one’s really sweet.” She turned to Rush and Alarie and said, “You guys deserve this.”