It’s all systems go for Princeton women’s basketball.
After posting back-to-back wins over Maine and Towson, the Tigers are preparing for, arguably, the most exciting evening of their season: a match against the No. 6 UConn Huskies, one of the most well-known women’s basketball programs in the country.
To make things even sweeter, it’ll be head coach Carla Berube’s first game back at Gampel Pavilion, where she played for four years with the Huskies, since she was an assistant coach at Providence College in 2002.
“It’s exciting, you know,” Berube said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “Never in my wildest dreams, 20–26 years ago, did I think I’d be back, after playing at Gampbel and playing for Connecticut, that I would be coaching against the Huskies.”
But the road here has been far from easy. Despite each being double-digit wins, the past two games were tighter than expected for Princeton. Combined with a tough schedule to start the season, the Tigers have faced plenty of early challenges.
“You know, it seems like for us every game is tight and tough, but we’re finding out who we are,“ Berube noted. “We’re finding out different lineups that we can go to, who’s playing well together, what’s working well.“
On Friday at Maine, the Tigers went almost four minutes without scoring in the mid-first quarter. They went back-and-forth with the Maine Black Bears until the third quarter, when a couple of key steals from junior forward Ellie Mitchell helped push Princeton ahead by five (37–32).
Mitchell’s rebounding, which remains top three in the country, and overall defensive presence was critical to the Tigers’ fourth quarter run that ended up securing the 65–51 Princeton victory. She finished the game with 12 rebounds, eight steals, and seven points; Mitchell remains the only player to post that stat line or better this year.
Junior guard Kaitlyn Chen and senior guard Julia Cunningham combined for 28 points and nine assists in the win, with Cunningham logging a perfect 7-for-7 from the free throw line. As a team, the Tigers shot a clean 50 percent from the field, much improved from their 28 percent performance against Texas.
Monday’s match against Towson had similar undertones: Princeton went back and forth with Towson until the late first quarter, when they kicked off a 15–6 scoring run that extended into the early second quarter. Despite ending the first half with a comfortable 17-point lead, Princeton went cold from the field and the lead was down to just eight by the late-fourth quarter (61–53).
Princeton shot just 30.4 percent from the field in the second half, and opened the fourth quarter going scoreless for nearly four minutes. They made just four of 18 attempts from three-point range, an area that remains problematic for the Tigers. But after a couple of key drives from Chen and senior guard-forward Grace Stone, as well as an energizing block from first-year guard Madison St. Rose, the Tigers pulled together a 10–1 run to close out the win, 71–54.
St. Rose posted a new career-high 12 points, including 2-for-5 from three and five rebounds. Cunningham led the Tigers with 13 points and three assists, and had her third-straight perfect free-throw performance, shooting 6 for 6 from the line.
While Cunningham has sometimes struggled to get shots to fall, she’s worked her way to the free throw line much more frequently than in previous years. The captain, who leads the Ivy League in free throw attempts per game, has missed just one of 27 attempts since going 3-for-7 against Temple and is on track to more than double her last season's attempts per game.
The defensive strength the Tigers are known for has struggled early in the season, but the Tigers have had these kinds of slow starts before. Across their seven games, the Tigers have wracked up 113 fouls; this time last year, that number was almost exactly the same, sitting at 112. They’ve given up an average of 60.3 points per game to opponents this year; in non-conference play last year, the Tigers gave up 57.3 points per game. It took a couple of rounds of Ivy League play for Princeton to develop what would become the third best rated defense in the NCAA, per Her Hoop Stats.
Berube is well aware of that, and she said she hopes the team will use their upcoming games as an opportunity to clean up their defensive identity.
“If you have great defensive possessions, that will lead to easier offense and better offense,” said Berube. “I think that’s a work in progress too, with some new faces that didn’t see the floor last year [and] some newcomers.”
“I think there’s a lot of room to grow,” Berube added, reiterating a feeling she had described earlier this season. “I think the ceiling’s a lot higher here, and so we’re gonna keep on working.”
Looking ahead to Thursday, the Tigers will have their work cut out for them. The No. 6 Huskies are eighth in the country in offensive rating, and have lost just one game despite playing four top ten opponents already this season. UConn is strong just about everywhere offensively, shooting at the Division I average or significantly better from nearly all positions, per CBB Analytics.
Her Hoop Stats puts the probability of a UConn victory at 96.6 percent, based on performance up until this point. But regardless of outcome, the chance to play against another ranked opponent is one the Tigers can’t pass up.
“There’s no place like Gampbel, you feel like the fans are on top of you and the bright lights and all,” Berube said. “It’s a great experience that will hopefully help us be ready for the Ivy League, but you know, we’re looking long-term for the NCAA tournament.”
With UConn star guard Azzi Fudd expected to miss the next 3–6 weeks due to a knee injury and Paige Bueckers already sidelined for the season with an ACL tear, the UConn roster might look a little different when the Tigers come to town. But as Berube said, that’s no reason to take the opportunity any less seriously.
“I certainly don’t want to see [Fudd and Bueckers] on the bench, I would much rather be coaching against them on the court,“ Berube noted before smiling and adding, “It’s Connecticut. Like, next All-American up, right?”
Princeton will tip off against the Huskies at Gampel Pavillion on Thursday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m., closing out their four-game road trip. The game will be available to stream on SNY.
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.