For Ivy League women's basketball teams, advancing past the first round of NCAA tournament play has meant defying the odds.
Only two teams from the Ancient Eight had ever won a tournament game before this year: Harvard in 1998 with a classic upset over Stanford from the 16-seed, and Princeton, who beat Green Bay in front of President Barack Obama in 2015.
On Saturday, March 19, at Indiana University’s historic Assembly Hall, the Princeton Tigers (25–4 overall, 14–0 Ivy League) battled through 40 minutes of cutthroat basketball against one of the hottest teams in the country. They came out victorious, defeating the Kentucky Wildcats (19–12, 8–8 Southeastern) by a final score of 69–62. Senior guard Abby Meyers led scoring for both teams, registering a career-high 29 points on 43 percent shooting.
Kentucky entered the tournament confident and ready to continue the success they had had in this year’s contentious Southeastern Conference (SEC) tournament. In the conference championships, the Wildcats stunned the nation, as they came from behind to beat No. 1 South Carolina in the final round thanks to a late-game three-pointer from forward Dre’una Edwards. The win gave the Wildcats their first conference title since 1982.
Meanwhile, the Tigers were having a successful season of their own, having finished Ivy League schedule undefeated in conference play for the second consecutive season and bringing home their third-straight Ivy Tournament title. The Tigers also broke into the AP top 25 rankings towards the end of the season and solidified their dominance on the defensive end as one of the top-five scoring defenses in the nation. Because of the cancellation of the 2020–21 Ivy League basketball season season, this would be the first opportunity in two years for the Tigers to play in an NCAA tournament game. After the win over Kentucky, Meyers spoke about having the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament again.
"We all grow up dreaming about playing on this stage in Division I basketball, in the NCAA Tournament," she said. "To finally be here after a year and half, two years, some of us for the first time, it's a special moment."
The last time the Tigers were in the NCAA tournament, they faced the same opponent. In 2019, the two teams, sitting at the exact same seeds, played an aggressive back-and-forth game. Junior guards Julia Cunningham and Grace Stone were the only two current Tigers to have played in the prior matchup, which ended in an 82–77 Wildcats victory.
But history didn’t repeat itself this time.
As a wave of Kentucky fans entered the stadium to enjoy the rematch, a small contingency of Princeton alums, friends, and family made their way to a pocket of seats just behind the media bench. They were quickly joined by a decently-sized group of Indiana fans who, having just finished watching their home team trounce Charlotte, were excited to cheer against Kentucky, their rivals at the state’s southern border.
The atmosphere in Assembly Hall was filled with excitement as the starting lineups for both teams were announced, with colorful lights and enthusiastic cheerleading squads making the college arena feel like a professional stadium at Princeton’s most anticipated game of the year. With a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament on the line, the matchup was destined to be unforgettable.
The game opened with full court pressure from the Kentucky defense. Princeton sophomore guard Kaitlyn Chen, fresh off of a 30-point performance against Columbia in the Ivy League Tournament final, scored the first points of the game, just beating the shot clock under the basket off a beeline pass from Meyers.
Sophomore forward Ellie Mitchell continued her rebounding prowess, ripping the ball from the outstretched fingers of Kentucky forward Treasure Hunt for her first of the game. With a new possession ahead of them, the Tigers looked to push the ball quickly down the floor, but Meyers stumbled and Kentucky guard Jada Walker was quick to take the ball down the floor for an easy layup, tying the game at two apiece. Two more costly turnovers for the Tigers in transition were converted to quick coast-to-coast layups for the Wildcats as the Princeton defense struggled to keep up with Kentucky’s nimble offense and quick decision making from Walker.
A third Tiger turnover created yet another possession for Kentucky, but this time the Princeton defense was able to get set in time to force a turnover of their own. An outlet pass from Chen got the ball to Meyers in transition for a trademark mid-range jumper to bring Princeton back within two. Using the newfound momentum, Stone impressed the Bloomington crowd with a strong short jumper right in front of the basket to tie the game 6–6.
A hefty block from Cunningham on Kentucky forward Emma King made it Princeton ball once again, and they were quick to take advantage of the defensive stop. A savvy spin move from Meyers followed by a swift corner jump shot from Chen put the Tigers up 10–6 as Kentucky worked through a bout of turnovers and difficulty on the defensive end. Mitchell’s rebounding on defense kept Kentucky from getting second chances on missed shots, and her keen attention to the passing lanes made it tough for the Wildcats to get into the paint.
Despite a clutch three-pointer from Walker with only 13 seconds remaining in the first quarter, which put the Tigers down by one, Chen drained a buzzer-beating jump shot to keep the lead in Princeton’s favor, 12–11. After the game, Chen spoke to the press about her in-game decision making.
"[Kentucky players] are really fast, talented players, so at times it was difficult," she said. "My coach and teammates will back me on any decision I make, I know they will be there if I ever get in trouble."
Turnovers continued to plague the Tiger offense as they headed into the second quarter, but their quick switching on defense and defensive rebounding kept Kentucky on their heels. Mitchell and sophomore guard Chet Nweke got their first points by taking advantage of a porous Kentucky defense that left the paint wide open for quick layups. On the defensive end, Cunningham was glued to Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard, one of Kentucky’s strongest scorers and a projected top pick in the upcoming WNBA draft, forcing Howard to take tough shots and making each rebound a battle for the ball.
With five minutes left in the half, Walker made a steal on an off-target pass from Meyers and expertly dished to Kentucky guard Robin Benton, who took it in for a quick layup, pulling Kentucky within four. Taking advantage of the Tigers’ struggles with passing turnovers, Walker made yet another steal, and Kentucky guard Nyah Leveretter finished the layup to put the score at 21–17.
Despite this being her first season on the court with the Tigers, Chen led the Princeton offense with the savvy of a player who’s been to the NCAA tournament a dozen times before. With Kentucky finally finding their rhythm, Chen found herself with the ball, just steps away from the basket. Instead of forcing a layup against a much taller Kentucky defender, she dished the ball to Mitchell behind her, who put it up for an easy two points to extend the Princeton lead to 26–19.
Princeton’s swarming defense stopped the Wildcats in their tracks through the final few possessions of the half. Howard’s scoring prowess shone through, however, as she sank a confident deep three-pointer, her first made basket of the night, to bring the score to 32–26 with seconds remaining before the break. After the game, Kentucky Coach Kyra Elzy spoke about Howard's impact on basketball at Kentucky in her final season.
"Her ability to score on all three levels; her basketball game speaks for itself," Ezry said. "She has left her legacy at Kentucky and for women's basketball."
Howard’s return to form gave Kentucky some much-needed momentum, too, as she forced her way to the basket for a layup in the first seconds of the third quarter. Not long after, Chen pulled off yet another highlight-worthy stunt: after attempting to get to the basket, she was cut off by Kentucky's Hunt, but changed course on the spot, instead pulling up for a fall-away corner jumper.
As the Tigers continued to hold the lead throughout the quarter, shooting troubles abounded for both teams, until a foul on Howard sent her to the free throw line where she converted for two points. The free throws finally brought Kentucky within striking distance at 38–36. Not to be outdone, Chen used a turnover on the next Kentucky possession to sink a bank shot for two more Princeton points. The Princeton offense worked like a well-oiled machine, as Nweke found a wide-open Cunningham for three, and the Tigers went on another scoring run.
Not a single player hesitated to take it to the basket, or kick out the ball to an open shooter on the perimeter. On the defensive end, the Tigers kept the Wildcats at bay from three while simultaneously keeping the paint well-protected. By the end of the third quarter, the score sat at 48–44, the Tigers just able to keep a battling Kentucky team at bay.
Chen started the final quarter for the Tigers with a bang, finding a hole in Kentucky’s defense and landing a clean jumper to put the Orange and Black up by six. Meanwhile, for Kentucky, the turnovers and missed shots continued, as a Princeton double-team caused Edwards to travel under the basket. Stone turned the turnover into points for the Tigers on a heroic and-one layup under the basket on the ensuing possession, pushing the lead ahead to 53–44 as the contingent of Princeton fans roared behind her.
Another masterful basket from Howard soon quelled Kentucky’s shooting woes, but Meyers was quick to respond with a bank shot to stop the momentum in its tracks. Chen followed up Meyers’ efforts with another tough layup, and, not to be outdone, Meyers attacked on the next possession with an acrobatic reverse layup right over Kentucky guard Jazmine Massengill. The Tigers charged ahead, 59–52.
Shortly afterwards, Edwards was quick to catch a bad pass from Meyers and turn it into a jumper. She mimicked the feat on the next possession, converting a missed layup from Stone into a neat pass to Benton for three, bringing the Wildcats within five.
Unfortunately for Kentucky, Edwards’ spectacular back-to-back plays would be the only points the Wildcats could find for the next four minutes, as shots continued to rattle out and the clock started to wind down. The Tigers were also struggling to get shots to fall until Mitchell secured her third steal and slung the ball to Chen. Chen, forever calm under the pressure, caused Massengill to foul, putting Princeton in the bonus and getting herself two free throws to boost the Tigers’ lead to 64–57 with 37 seconds remaining.
The Princeton crowd was beginning to get excited as the Tigers closed in on their second-ever win in March Madness. A final missed three-pointer from Howard and a last rebound from Cunningham capped out the game, with a final score of 69–62 in favor of the eleventh-seeded Tigers.
As the buzzer sounded, the team sprinted to center court, jumping and cheering as Princeton fans celebrated their now victorious squad. Despite logging 19 turnovers, six more than their season average, the Tigers never let up on either end of the court. Princeton out-rebounded Kentucky 37–30, and shot 49.1 percent from the field.
The historic upset sends Princeton to the Round of 32 for just the second time in program history, joining the barrage of upsets to descend upon this year’s women’s March Madness tournament. They have also extended their season winning streak to an incredible 18 games.
The Tigers will face No. 3 seed Indiana (23–8, 13–2 Big 10) on Monday and attempt to continue their NCAA success. Princeton coach Carla Berube spoke to the press on Sunday about what the disjointed but ultimately successful performance says about the road ahead for the Tigers.
"We'll be ready. We'll know them [Indiana]," she said. "You can say we're doing X, Y, Z, but once you're out there, clearly, some of last night did not go according to plan."
She paused, before adding, "we made more plays than Kentucky did, and that's how you win the game."
The Round of 32 matchup against Indiana will be played at Assembly Hall, the home court for the Hoosiers, and will be broadcast on ESPNU at 8 p.m. Monday night. A watch party will be hosted for the Princeton Community at Jadwin Gymnasium at 7:30pm.
Isabel Rodrigues is a contributor to the Sports section at the 'Prince' who typically covers women's basketball. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @isabelinspace.