On Sunday, Nov. 27, Princeton women’s basketball (3–2 overall, 0–0 Ivy League) endured a tough 40 minutes of action against No. 22 Texas (3–3 , 0–0 Big 12). The Tigers ultimately came up short, with a final score of 74–50.
The Tigers opened Sunday’s contest on the wrong side of a 9–0 run, and quickly found themselves in a hole that they would struggle to climb out of for the remainder of the game. Junior forward Ellie Mitchell quickly wracked up fouls, and coupled with attention from the Longhorn defense, was limited to just seven rebounds and two steals. Mitchell would foul out of the game with less than a minute left to play.
Foul trouble and turnovers plagued the Tigers, but they forced as much out of the Longhorns. It seemed the main thing Texas could do that Princeton could not figure out was the only thing they alone had control over: hitting open shots.
The Tigers shot just 28 percent on the day, to the Longhorn’s season-best 52 percent, and got to the foul line half as many times as Texas. It’s the second time in five games that the Tigers have made less than 30 percent of their shots, both times on more than 50 attempts.
“We missed some open shots that you've got to make if you're going to upset a top 20 team,” said Head Coach Carla Berube in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. “[Texas is] extremely talented. If you’re going to beat a team like that, you’ve got to make shots.”
Despite the shooting struggles, senior guard/forward Chet Nweke showed composure and delivered some of the Tigers’ more creative sets through the first three quarters. “Chet came in and gave us really great minutes. She read the floor well, she was offensive rebounding, she had a big three,” Berube said. “She's just really active and made some big plays for us.”
One moment stood out: with four minutes left in the first quarter, Nweke stood with the ball above her head at the top of the key, looking to the perimeter for a teammate to pass to. But instead, she smartly noticed a wide-open lane to the basket that had opened up, pivoted, and took her defender straight to the basket for a layup. Nweke was fouled and sank both free throws while the Princeton bench, as it does, cheered her along.
They were the type of plays that were hard to come by against a full-court Texas defense that was all the more stifling in the halfcourt. The Tigers built up 19 turnovers over the match, many of which came at or near the top of the key.
After an arduous second and third quarter where the Tigers made just seven of 27 attempts from the field, Princeton looked for a final spark to take them through the fourth quarter. Despite falling even further behind the Longhorns in the opening four minutes, first-year guard Madison St. Rose spurred a 7–0 Princeton run. She nabbed a couple of deft steals and, along with key assists from senior point guard Maggie Connolly, pushed the Tigers to play in transition. While St. Rose has so far struggled to get shots to fall from the field, her performance Sunday proved her consistent defensive effort might just be the key to unlocking more scoring.
"[We've] just been patient with her shot … she's a really good shooter. But on Sunday, she just made some great plays on the defensive end," Berube said of St. Rose. "She really helped out her teammates … and had a great impact when she went in there."
Senior forward Kira Emsbo had her first significant minutes of the season, and logged her first contributions to the team following major injuries that have kept her sidelined since 2019. Emsbo opened her minutes with a momentum-shifting block on Texas forward Taylor Jones, who had given the Tigers trouble all afternoon, but soon found herself in foul trouble as well.
"It's been so long, for her, since she's played," Berube said. "She's still finding her legs, getting just acquainted with the game again, and I love what she gives every day in practice."
How much more of Emsbo we see this season remains to be seen, along with how quickly she re-adjusts to being back on the court. Standing at a team-high 6’5”, she at least has the opportunity to be an imposing presence in the post for the Tigers.
At the end of the day, this is nowhere the Tigers haven’t been before. Last season, in their final non-conference match of the season, the Tigers put up a 17-point loss to the Longhorns while they shot just around 29 percent. And, as it bears repeating, Princeton is still in the process of figuring out how to replace the impact of last year’s leading scorer Abby Meyers.
"We’re still developing our chemistry," Berube said. "[Senior Grace Stone] is playing at guard now, which she hasn’t played in a couple of years … We have [sophomore Paige Morton] … playing some major minutes for us. That was only game number five. So it's a work in progress."
"We're just going to keep on challenging them every day to get better and to work together," Berube added. "Hopefully, we'll see a better outcome."
So, as disappointing as the loss might seem, the Tigers are giving themselves a decent shot at repeating last year’s success, and perhaps building on it. On one hand, Princeton faces a much tougher non-conference schedule than last year, but Berube says it's all part of getting where they want to be early next year.
"This schedule is not easy, but it's not to be at our very best right now, it's to be at our best come February and March," Berube told the 'Prince.' "A game like Texas will prepare us [for] the challenge of that kind of game and that environment."
What exactly is next for the Tigers, no one can say for sure. But for now, we know they'll be heading to Maine, on Friday, Dec. 2, where they'll have a chance to grab a relatively straightforward win on the road. Maine struggled against Yale earlier this season, and hasn’t shown many signs of life since, so the Tigers should use this as an opportunity to work out those shooting woes and gain some confidence from behind the arc. The upcoming match will be available to stream on Flo Hoops.
Isabel Rodrigues is a staff writer for the Sports section at the ‘Prince’ who typically covers women's basketball. Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.