The Tigers are ready for the “Big Dance.”
On Saturday, March 12, the undefeated Princeton women's basketball team (24–4, 14–0 Ivy League) toppled Columbia 77–59 in the Ivy Madness final. With the win, the Tigers secured the team's 42nd straight Ivy League victory, and their ninth visit to the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championship tournament, also known as March Madness.
The following day, at 8 p.m. in Jadwin Gym, the Tigers got their first-round assignment: as the No. 11 seed in the Bridgeport Region, Princeton will take on the No. 6 seed University of Kentucky Wildcats (19–11 overall, 8–8 Southeastern) on Saturday, March 19 in Bloomington, Ind.
The most astute of fans will quickly recognize Kentucky: Saturday’s game will be a rematch of the Tigers’ last appearance in the NCAA tournament, where the Wildcats bested the Tigers, 82–77. Junior guards Grace Stone and Julia Cunningham are the only two Tigers who appeared in the previous match-up.
With a second-year head coach in Carla Berube and a roster that has taken Princeton through a decisively undefeated Ivy League season — with plenty of accolades along the way — this is hardly the same squad that last came through the NCAA tournament. For Kentucky and their second-year head coach in Kyra Elzy, advancement means another opportunity to prove the durability of their season-altering 10-game win streak. With a national audience watching on ESPN, both squads are sure to bring their best to Saturday's match.
The Wildcats will enter their 17th March Madness appearance on one of the most impressive winning streaks in all of Division I women’s basketball. The newly crowned champions of the Southeastern Conference are coming off of a thrilling last-second victory over No. 1 South Carolina, 64–62, which gave them their first SEC title since 1982. Kentucky have also won their last 10 games, with five consecutive wins by 15 or more.
Despite a difficult stretch of losses earlier this season, Kentucky boasts one of the more remarkable comebacks of the 2022 season, led by guard Rhyne Howard. A projected top-three pick in this year's WNBA draft, Howard's excellence on both ends of the floor has been hard to ignore — her 20.6 points per game and 7.3 rebounds per game make her one of the most well-rounded players in the nation.
The Wildcats also have a decent size advantage over the Tigers, with three of their most used guards at or over 6’0”. Princeton's tallest rotation player is sophomore forward Ellie Mitchell, who stands at six foot one inch tall, while senior guard Abby Meyers is the only Princeton guard to break 6’0”. The Wildcats are also eighth in the NCAA in blocked shots per game, making them imposing in the paint.
The Orange and Black are to be feared on defense, too, though. With a top-three scoring defense in the NCAA, holding their opponents to an average of just 50.9 points per game, the Tigers will look to continue their defensive success. Battle-tested through the Ivy Tournament, the Princeton defense locked in key experience against high-volume three-point shooting teams in Harvard and Columbia. Against a Kentucky team with a comparable three-point percentage, the Tigers’ trip through Ivy Madness will prove valuable.
On the offensive end, Mitchell's prolific offensive rebounding will be key to generating second-chance opportunities for the Tigers and limiting Kentucky's chances on the fast-break. In one of Princeton's toughest games of the year, a 70–53 loss to No. 12 Texas, Mitchell logged a staggering 12 offensive rebounds, her season high. The Wildcats have had success against top SEC opponents by playing at a faster pace, so the Tigers will need to continue working the offensive glass to prevent Kentucky from getting quick points in transition.
Not to be outdone, Princeton enters with significant momentum of their own: on a 17-game winning streak, with their last loss being the game against Texas. Having played the entire Ivy Tournament away from home, the Tigers have proved they can maintain their top-tier play on neutral ground. As of March 14, Princeton has been ranked in the AP top-25 for two weeks in a row, and key players Meyers and sophomore guard Kaitlyn Chen are coming off of impressive performances. For Chen, who has steadily improved throughout the season, maintaining the confidence and all-around excellence that manifested in a career-high 30-point showing against Columbia is paramount.
The matchup is sure to be one for the ages, with both teams looking to showcase their talent and skill. Though HerHoopStats projects a 64 percent win probability in favor of Princeton on neutral ground, Kentucky has proven that nothing is guaranteed against their squad. With the potential for a budding rivalry, win streaks at risk, and the opportunity to play against some of the top teams in the league, a lot is at stake for both the Tigers and Wildcats.
The teams enter the bracket in the bottom half of the Bridgeport Region, which places them amid a number of formidable opponents. Should the Tigers advance past Kentucky, they would more than likely face the region hosts, No. 3-seeded University of Indiana (22–8, 11–5 Big Ten), who faces No. 14-seeded Charlotte (22–9,15–3 Conference USA) in the first round.
Only one team seeded lower than the 13 line has ever managed to pull off an upset in the first round in the history of the women’s tournament. In 1998, the Ivy League’s own Harvard Crimson, then No. 16, defeated then No. 1 Stanford, led by legendary Coach Tara VanDerveer, with a score of 71–67. The Crimson remain the only sub-13 seed in women’s tournament history to advance to the second round, making a Charlotte victory unlikely.
Indiana boasts valuable experience against tough opponents in No. 2 seed Iowa (23–7, 14–4 Big Ten) and No. 1 seed Stanford (28–3, 16–0 Pac-12), as well as one of the highest field-goal percentages in the league. Indiana will also have the key advantage of playing on their home court, as they host this section of the Bridgeport bracket. With that home-court advantage, HerHoopStats predicts a 62.2 percent win probability in favor of Indiana.
Regardless of the outcome, this trip to March Madness will be an invaluable experience for the Tigers. With limited opportunities to play against ranked opponents, any one of these match-ups will be critical experience for a Princeton squad taking on the national stage.
All 67 games of the 68-team March Madness tournament will be broadcast on ESPN channels. The Tigers will face off against Kentucky on Saturday, March 19, with tipoff at 4 p.m. on ESPN.
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.