STORRS, Conn. — On a cold, windy evening in the middle of December, Princeton women’s basketball team stepped into Gampel Pavilion, home of the Connecticut Huskies. Despite nearly upsetting the top-ranked Huskies, the Tigers came up short of a win, losing 69–64.
At least the Tigers weren’t stepping in alone: Head Coach Carla Berube knows UConn’s home court better than most.
“I think I was maybe an eighth grader,” Berube recalled of her first visit to Gampel. “It was amazing. I was blown away by the pavilion … and I just was, like, I would love to play in here.”
And play there she did. In her sophomore season, Berube helped take the Huskies to a stunning 35–0 season, which ended with the first of the program’s 11 national championships. The next year, the championship team played an exhibition game against the eventual gold medalist 1996 Olympic team, where Berube scored four points and six rebounds. She went on to score over 1,300 points for UConn before she graduated in 1997.
“My four years of basketball and four years of just being a student-athlete at Connecticut certainly had a huge impact on me in so many ways,” Berube told media ahead of Thursday’s game. “I wasn’t thinking about X’s and O’s or the actual skill work, basketball-wise. It was more like, how do you get a group of 18- to 22-year-olds together and on the same page with the same goals, and how do you get them working together and with great chemistry and camaraderie.”
“Those are the things that I certainly took away from my time there and I think [have] made me a successful coach now,” she said.
Now in her third season with the Tigers, the two-time Ivy League Coach of the Year has grown well beyond her UConn days. Berube has helped bring Princeton women’s basketball to back-to-back perfect conference seasons, and had lost just five games with the Tigers during the previous season. After a huge upset over Kentucky in last year’s NCAA tournament, the door to higher heights began to creak open for the Tigers.
The first sign? After multiple years of trying to schedule a game against the Huskies, the match finally came together. “I want to challenge my players. I want to get them in games with really great opponents, and why not?” Berube said. “Why not play against the greatest college basketball program that there ever was?”
“So when they asked, we jumped at this opportunity,” she said.
Beyond playing the No. 6 team in the country, it was also the first time Berube would face her former head coach, Geno Auriemma, as a head coach herself. And so, the field was set; even as UConn lost nearly half its roster to injuries, the date loomed large while the Tigers picked up wins at Maine and Towson.
On Dec. 8, the Tigers (5–3 overall, 0–0 Ivy League) tipped off against UConn (7–1, 1–0 Big East) looking for their third consecutive win. While they struggled early, the Tigers made a push late in the game, cutting the UConn lead to just two with 30 seconds left to play. But the Huskies were resilient and handed the Tigers their third loss of the season with a final score of 69–64.
“We were right there,” Berube said after the game. “I’m really proud of my players, my team. This is a game that we can learn from and grow from and take steps forward … that’s how I walked into the locker room, that’s how I’m going to leave Gampel: just proud of them for competing like they did.”
Despite key players being out for the Huskies, the Tigers’ only lead would come and go in the first four minutes of the game. Princeton shot a decent 35 percent from the field in the first quarter but struggled to make shots in the second. After missing important second-chance baskets and all seven of their three-point attempts in the quarter, they fell to a deficit of 15 (16–31).
Senior guard-forward Grace Stone was a bright spot for the Tigers, going 4–7 from the field and leading Princeton with 10 points by the end of the first half. Stone energized the Tigers in the early goings with a couple of backdoor cuts, and her perimeter defense was stifling. Having previously played at the forward position for the Tigers, her strength in the post has made her a versatile option for Princeton all year. But on Thursday, it was her consistency from beyond the arc that would earn her a new career-high 20 points as she went five-for-eight from the three-point line.
“Grace made big shots when we needed [them], when we weren’t scoring the basketball,” Berube said of Stone after the game. “[She] just came up big; Grace does that when we need her the most, it seems like.”
Missed layups and putbacks, as well as early turnovers, plagued the Tiger offense in the first half. The team’s leading scorer on the season, junior guard Kaitlyn Chen, ended up with just seven made shots on 21 attempts.
However, Chen layed down a quick four points to start the fourth, and the Tigers were able to lower the Huskies’ lead to 10 and force a UConn timeout. Senior guard Julia Cunningham showed composure after the timeout, putting up a sharp head-fake layup and then an automatic three-pointer to cut the Husky lead, 58–53.
Unfortunately, for the Tigers, UConn responded right away with four straight points of their own, this time causing Princeton to take a timeout. As the crowd roared from all directions, it was hard not to think of the Tigers’ visit to Indiana in March, and all of the tough road games that had helped them to that point.
“These games can only help you down the road,” Berube noted. “Being in tough environments with a crowd that’s against you, or a student session section that’s against you, and you’re able to still make big plays.”
And yet, the battle of the fourth quarter raged on: with just 46 seconds left, the Tigers cut UConn’s lead to two, after going on an 8–0 run propelled by Chen’s free-throw shooting and a full-court press from the Tigers. Princeton was down by three with just 20 seconds left, but after a missed out-of-bounds play, the Tigers were forced to foul. They could only hope the time they got back would be enough to pull off the upset.
As it happens, that foul would send UConn point guard Inês Bettencourt to the foul line, where she sank two free throws to put the Huskies up by five. Suddenly, the win was two possessions away, just barely out of arm’s reach as the final seconds wound down, a distance the Tigers were unable to close before the final buzzer.
“I’ve been watching Carla’s teams for a long time … and there’s a quality about them that you really have to admire,” Auriemma said after the game. “With a team like Princeton, the longer you let them stay in the game, the more difficult it’s going to be. So none of what happened tonight surprised me. Not one bit.”
The Tigers had three players in double digits for the night: Stone led the way with a career-high 20 points. Chen had 18, which she paired with a career-high-tying seven assists, and Cunningham finished with 11. Junior forward Ellie Mitchell came up with nine rebounds, two assists, and three points.
“It’s everyone’s dream to play at UConn,” Chen told The Daily Princetonian. “You know, you grow up watching them play, it was just super cool.”
“Getting to play against really good players who know the game well, it was a test for us,” Chen added. “I think it’s going to be really good for us moving forward.”
Despite the tough loss, Berube seemed hopeful for the future.
“I was worried that when we got down 15, maybe that … we let it slip away, and we didn’t,” Berube told media after the game. “I’ve got some players who have a great will to win and made some really great plays on the defensive end.”
“I have so much respect for the UConn program,” Berube said. “It was a fun game … and you know, maybe we’ll see them down the road in March.”
Princeton returned to Jadwin Gym on Sunday, defeating Delaware (5–3 overall, 0–0 CAA) 62–47. It was their first match back at Jadwin in nearly a month.
Now, the Tigers will head back on the road this Thursday, Dec. 15, to nearby Rutgers for their first match against the Scarlet Knights in five years. Catch the Tigers on the Big 10 Plus network, or make the short trip to Jersey Mike’s Arena, with tipoff at 7 p.m.
Isabel Rodrigues is a staff writer for the Sports section at the ‘Prince’ who typically covers women’s basketball.
Allison Ha is a contributor to the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.