CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For the last three years, the women’s basketball team put up what had been the longest active conference winning streak in Ivy League basketball.
The Tigers’ string of 42 straight Ivy wins, stretching all the way back to Feb. 9, 2019, came to an end on Saturday, Dec. 31, as Princeton (8–4 overall, 0–1 Ivy League) dropped their league opener to Harvard (8–5 overall, 1–0 Ivy League), 67–59. Despite preventing the Crimson from scoring for nearly eight minutes in the second and third quarters, the Tigers struggled to capitalize on the offensive end; Princeton shot just 38 percent from two-point range and committed 16 turnovers.
“It’s the first [conference] game of the year, and there’s a lot of games to go,” head coach Carla Berube told The Daily Princetonian. “It’s just important for us to take steps forward, learn from it, learn from today, and make sure that when we play [Harvard] again, we’re better prepared.”
Back-to-back three-pointers opened the match for the Crimson, and they took an early 6–4 lead that they would never relinquish. With junior forward Ellie Mitchell on the floor, the Tigers seemed to have a response to the early full-court press Harvard threw at them, and the Princeton defense moved as fluidly as it had in critical moments against Rhode Island just days prior. The Tigers also had early luck on the fast break, with Mitchell throwing a quick outlet pass to senior guard Julia Cunningham, who found junior guard Kaitlyn Chen running up the floor for an uncontested layup, cutting the Crimson lead to one at 11–10.
“We just needed [Mitchell] to stay really confident in her game,” Berube said. “She makes so many plays all over the floor that you just need her in the game.”
But as Mitchell headed to the bench after picking up a second foul before the end of the first quarter, Princeton seemed to lose its polish. The Tigers allowed a 9–0 Crimson run, as turnovers and missed layups plagued the Princeton offense. Meanwhile, the Harvard defense suffocated the Tigers, forcing the offense to try tough shots late in the shot clock, instead of the composed and dialed-in buckets they’d been able to find previously. The difficulties continued into the second quarter, as the Tigers’ shooting percentage dropped from 38.5 percent in the first quarter to just 22.2 percent in the second.
“I think we came in prepared, we just didn't really execute the game plan as well as we could have,” Cunningham told the ‘Prince.’ “Moving forward, that’s obviously going to be a big goal of ours.”
It wasn't all trouble for the Tigers, though — sophomore forward Paige Morton brought some much-needed energy towards the end of the first half as Chen found her posting up under the basket, cutting the Harvard lead to 31–22. Then, as Morton laid down a decisive block to close the quarter, the Princeton bench roared with delight alongside the contingent of Princeton alums that had packed the bleachers behind them. The Tigers’ defense had also tightened significantly, limiting the Crimson to just nine points in the quarter while allowing 21.0 percent shooting from the field.
As the second half began, it seemed as though the worst of the storm had passed for Princeton. In the opening minutes, a gutsy one-footed jumper from first-year guard Madison St. Rose made it a two-possession game. Moments later, Mitchell tore down a defensive rebound and then found an open pocket just a couple of feet from the other basket. Cunningham spotted her and slung a well-timed pass around her defender, which Mitchell converted into a fade-away jump-shot, bringing the Crimson lead to 31–28. The two teams traded baskets for the rest of the quarter, but a couple of clutch three-point shots kept the edge in favor of the Crimson.
“I do like our fight, we were playing really hard to the very end,” Berube said. “[We] just need to clean things up a bit on the defensive end, especially. And, you know, I think we could score a little bit more in transition too. But give Harvard a lot of credit — they played really well defensively.”
The Tigers had opportunities early in the fourth quarter to pull away with a lead. Harvard guard Harmoni Turner, the Ivy League's leading scorer, went down with an apparent ankle injury right as Princeton was picking up speed. Instead of her absence working to the Tigers’ advantage, back-to-back three-pointers from Harvard guard Lola Mullaney pushed the Crimson lead to nine, at 51–42. However, the Tigers responded — Mitchell and Chen found open lanes to the basket, and senior guard Grace Stone punched in a three-pointer of her own, making it 51–47.
Yet at every turn the Crimson had an answer. Turner returned to the floor and kicked off a 6–2 Harvard run, to which senior guard Maggie Connolly responded by sinking two threes for the Tigers, making it 61–57. By the end, it came down to foul shooting, as the Tigers tried to create extra offensive possessions by fouling the Crimson. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the free-throw line was where Turner and Mullaney had excelled all day. They sank the final game-clinching shots and sprinted back to an exuberant Crimson bench as the final buzzer rang heavy in the air.
Cunningham, the team’s captain, reflected on the loss and her hopes for the rest of the season.
“We’re all really excited for Ivy season,” she said. “We know how important every game is. So that’s how we came in, and that’s how we’re gonna approach every game moving forward.”
Chen led the Tigers and all scorers with 21 points and four assists, while Mitchell had a game-high 14 rebounds and eight points. Stone and Cunningham combined for 16 points and 10 rebounds. Stone, Cunningham, and Chen each played nearly the entire forty minutes.
The Tigers’ first Ivy League loss of the season was handed to them by first-time Harvard head coach Carrie Moore, who spent three seasons with the Tigers as an assistant coach and was heavily involved in the recruitment and development of many of the team’s current seniors. Moore was also the Tigers’ director of basketball operations for two seasons and was part of Princeton’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament. Moore told the ‘Prince,’ it was “a little weird, honestly,” to be on the opposite bench.
“The emotions were all over the place, honestly, going into the game,” Moore said. “But once the ball is tipped, it’s us versus them.”
With Moore at the helm for the Crimson and a strong Columbia team (12–2 overall, 1–0 Ivy League) up next on the Tigers’ schedule, Ivy League competition is fiercer than ever. But with a long season ahead, the Tigers still have plenty of time to make their statement.
“It’s been a while since we’ve lost an Ivy League game. So I just think this year we’re gonna have to really fight,” Berube said. “The Ivy League is so much better and very well coached.”
“We’re gonna take it and learn from it,” Cunningham said.
When asked about how she’s working through the loss with her younger counterparts on the team, Cunningham was reflective:
“I haven’t lost an Ivy League game since I was a freshman,” she said. “I’m just trying to tell them it’s only game one and now we’re moving forward.”
Princeton will take on Columbia at Jadwin Gymnasium on Friday, Jan. 6, with tip-off at 7:00 p.m. The game will also be broadcast on ESPNU.
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.