Put yourself in Kaitlyn Chen’s shoes.
It’s Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. At 1 a.m., you get off of a bus that carried you from Ithaca to Manhattan; at both stops, you’re greeted by temperatures in the single digits and an unforgiving icy wind. 15 hours later, you’re standing at center court of Columbia’s Levien Gym, starting in what could be one of the most important games of your junior basketball season.
No matter how the ball gets into your hands, it’s accompanied by a chorus of boos. People you’ve never met screaming as loud as they can about how bad (in their opinion) your next shot will be. The clock is ticking, and despite it all, you have to make something, a winning kind of something, happen.
No pressure, right?
But Kaitlyn Chen is Princeton’s leading scorer for a reason, and she’s been here a couple of times before — Columbia (18–4 overall, 7–2 Ivy) has been on the receiving end of her two career-best performances, including a 30-point deluge in last year’s Ivy Tournament Final.
When asked about how she handled the pressure, Chen had an even bigger grin: “I felt like this was a really fun environment to play in,” she said after the game. “Shoutout Columbia for bringing out so many people!”
Chen is composed on every play and lets her seemingly bottomless playmaking toolkit take the lead. With her lethal mid-range shot, signature acrobatic layups, and even a four-point play, she tallies up a game-high 16 points.
She carves her way into the paint to grab seven rebounds, the second highest on Princeton’s roster (junior forward Ellie Mitchell had that one covered, with a game-high 17 boards of her own). And, because Chen is typically Princeton’s primary ball handler, she slings passes and operates the Tigers’ offense, wracking up four assists along the way.
By the time she’s done (a fifth foul forces her out of the game in the final minute), all that remains is a valiant 74–56 Princeton (16–5, 7–2) victory, an ear-to-ear smile, and a wave goodbye to Levien Gym, as if to say, “See you next time!”
But it wasn’t just Chen who was all-systems go: senior guard Julia Cunningham grabbed four steals and put up 15 points on her way to her 1000th career point. Cunningham became the 27th player in Princeton women’s basketball history to hit this milestone. First-year guard Madison St. Rose was a defensive stalwart, forcing a couple of key offensive fouls out of Columbia’s top scorers early on. She added 14 points, including 2-of-5 from three-point range, and five rebounds on the day. Then came senior guard Grace Stone, who made all six of her free-throw attempts, to add in 13 points, two assists, and three rebounds.
The Tigers took the lead early in the first quarter and never looked back — even as Columbia cut a 20-point lead down to just 10 in the late third quarter, Princeton rallied to build up the cushion again. The Tigers’ trademark defense was as efficient as it’s ever been. Usually averaging 80.2 points per game, Columbia had a season-low 56 points on 26.2 percent shooting. Before Saturday’s game, the Lions had never shot below 30 percent from the field.
“We worked so hard on our defense and it’s coming together so much better than it was early in the year,” head coach Carla Berube said after the game. “So much credit to our players for working really hard day in and day out.”
Even as four of Princeton’s starting five logged four or more fouls, critical minutes from senior forward Chet Nweke and senior point guard Maggie Connolly off the bench helped maintain the Tigers’ oppressive forward momentum. Though they combined for just five points and three rebounds, the pair kept the Princeton machine running while starters managed fouls and got in a couple of minutes of rest.
“They don't get rattled, whatever is happening out there,” Berube said of her team. “That non-conference schedule has helped us in these big games.”
“They’re battle-tested. They’re ready,” she added.
Having also defeated Cornell (9–13, 2–7) 63–52 the day prior on Friday, Feb. 3, the Tigers improved to 6–2 in Ivy League play, good enough for a three-way tie for first place. St. Rose posted a game-high 18-points, four rebounds, and four assists in the win over the Big Red to push the Tigers into a comfortable lead, while Chen racked up 15 points, six assists, and four rebounds.
The Tigers return to action on Feb. 11 when Dartmouth (0–9, 2–21) visits Jadwin for a celebration of Black History Month and National Girls and Women in Sports Day (NGWSD).
Isabel Rodrigues is a senior staff writer for the Sports section at the ‘Prince’ who typically covers women’s basketball.
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