It was New Year’s Eve 2022 in Cambridge, Mass., and Princeton women’s basketball had seen better days — for every attempt they made to cut Harvard’s lead to a single possession, the Crimson seemed to have a response. The result, a 67–59 Harvard win, made for the Tigers’ first Ivy League loss in over 40 games and proved there was still plenty of work to be done to win another Ivy League title.
Fast-forward to Feb. 24, 12 games later, and the Crimson (15–10 Overall, 8–5 Ivy League) were back on the schedule, this time at Jadwin Gymnasium, where it was the Tigers’ (20–5, 11–2) final regular-season home game. But a lot has changed about this Princeton team, and head coach Carla Berube will be the first to tell you about it.
“We aren’t the team that we were in late December,” Berube told The Daily Princetonian in a phone interview. “To execute better [against Harvard,] we need to defend better, we need to rebound better — just, everything.”
Put frankly: “They left a bad taste in our mouth,” senior guard Grace Stone told the ‘Prince.’
Cut to halftime on Friday, Feb. 24, and déjà vu from that gloomy December loss was setting in — Harvard guard Harmoni Turner cornered junior guard Kaitlyn Chen and used the traffic jam to snag the ball. She took the ball all the way down court, stepping around first-year guard Madison St. Rose to put the Crimson up by 12.
It had not started out this way.
By tradition, the Tigers honored their senior class ahead of Friday’s game, not just by acknowledging their achievements pre-game, but also by featuring all five members of the Class of 2023 in the starting lineup. It was the first career start for senior forward Lexi Weger, and the first start since 2018 for senior center Kira Emsbo.
“They’ve just been just great teammates … all five of them are really great leaders,” Berube said. “They just embody what we’re all about, playing hard, playing together, playing for each other.”
“Sometimes it’s in games, but a lot of times it’s practice or it’s off the court, being a great teammate for each other. They’ve been amazing, I can’t say enough about them,” she added.
Emsbo, who had the opening tip, has dealt with a slew of injuries throughout her Princeton career. They have kept her largely sidelined since 2019, though she’d made a few appearances in her senior season. Stone told the ‘Prince,’ seeing Emsbo back in her element has been a long time coming.
“That girl has been through it,” Stone said. “She has put her head down, she has worked, and she has never had a frown on her face. She’s such a hard worker, she deserves everything that she gets.”
After the ceremony, the game got going, and senior guard Maggie Connolly was first on the board for the Tigers, going right past her defender through the middle of the paint for a quick floater. Harvard guard McKenzie Forbes responded with a long-range jump shot of her own, but Weger posted up Forbes on the next play, dumping in a clean hook shot to keep the score tied, 4–4.
Not long after, the remainder of Princeton’s typical starting five took the floor. The Tigers continued to trade baskets with the Crimson through the end of the first quarter, trailing by just one possession as both teams struggled to put together a run.
By the second quarter, however, the Harvard lead had ballooned to double-digits as the Tigers’ shooting percentage tumbled to just 27.3 percent. The Crimson had taken over offensively, as Turner worked her way into the paint, and guard Katie Krupa nailed two deep three-pointers. By the time Turner grabbed the ball right from under Chen, the Tigers were down 12 and scrambling to find any offensive production.
“Harvard’s a really good team, and they really speed you up on both ends of the floor,” Stone explained. “They were pressuring us a lot, and we weren’t really getting into the stuff we wanted to run offensively.”
And then there were the defensive struggles: “We needed to do a better job … not allowing just open looks. Our hands were down, they were getting open threes,” said Berube.
“When you’re playing for your seniors and this is an important game — there’s a lot of emotion," she added. “The first half was tough, but I thought we regrouped really well at halftime, and that third quarter was so much better.”
As the second half began, Stone took off offensively, chipping away at the Crimson lead with one clutch bucket after another. Junior forward Ellie Mitchell and senior guard Julia Cunningham hauled in rebounds, grabbed steals, and quickly slung passes up the court, forcing Harvard to play at their pace.
When Stone’s own shot wasn’t open, she found St. Rose for a timely three-pointer, cutting the Harvard lead to just five, at 32–27. Defense continued to produce offense, and Mitchell grabbed an errant Crimson pass, allowing Chen to find wide-open Stone for another clean three-pointer, bringing the Crimson lead to two.
Suddenly, the double-digit deficit they had been staring down at halftime nearly evaporated. Stone credited the packed student section for some of that late game spark: “I don’t know if I’ve had a crowd that big during my Princeton career,” she told the ‘Prince.’
“To have it on my senior night when we’re honoring us and our journey, it meant so much … We needed that energy, so it was really huge.”
Even as Harvard mounted a 5–0 run in the final seconds of the third quarter, the Tigers responded in the fourth quarter by shooting an impressive 60 percent from the field. After a scoreless third quarter, Chen had started to pick up speed, getting into the paint through contact and moving the ball to find her open teammates.
But even with Stone and Chen’s heroics, it would take until there were just four minutes left to play for the Tigers to get within striking distance. Mitchell muscled up a reverse layup, making the score 46–45 in favor of Harvard, but committed a foul on Forbes on the next play. Forbes made one foul shot but missed the second, and St. Rose immediately dove for the rebound to secure the ball for Princeton.
“They were just clinging to that lead,” Stone said with a smile.
Chen dribbled the ball up the court and the Tigers ran through their offensive sets, but Harvard cut off option after option. With the shot clock winding down, St. Rose tossed it to Chen at the top of the key.
She was facing down Harvard’s Turner, but her eyes were on the pocket in the middle of the paint where she’s right at home. Like clockwork, Chen wound her way inside and nailed the fadeaway jump shot, tying the game with two minutes to go. Jadwin exploded in cheers, the crowd’s excitement (and anxiety) quickly growing.
With under a minute to go, the Tigers came down the court for another attempt at grabbing the lead. Similarly to their tying possession, Harvard forced them deep into the shot clock, but, with six seconds on the clock, St. Rose found an open lane to the basket and took the ball inside. Her layup, just slightly too strong, bounced into the hands of Mitchell, who tore it down and pushed it to a cutting Chen.
Whether she was tripped or is just better at layups from the horizontal position is still up for debate, but Chen’s hail mary was answered. The ball snapped through the net, and the Tigers were up by two with just seconds remaining.
But Chen was hardly finished — on the next play, she faced Turner on the defensive end, following her every move and cutting off every scoring opportunity. Cunningham, Mitchell, and Stone tag-teamed to isolate the Crimson’s best three-point shooters, forcing Turner into an off-balance jump shot, which clanged off the side of the backboard.
“I think that’s the biggest thing is that we know in big games, close games, that our defense is going to win it for us,” Stone told the ‘Prince.’
The Tigers cleaned up the final seconds, with Stone securing a key offensive rebound to keep Harvard at bay, and Cunningham punching in a pair of final sealing free-throws to put Princeton up by four. As Cunningham blocked a final desperate Crimson shot attempt, the buzzer rang out and Princeton’s bench stormed the court, enveloping their teammates in a huge huddle.
“I think we’re prepared, I think [this is] good for us, and we just really want to come and bring our best to each game now,” Stone said. “We know that there’s potential to see [Harvard] in the [Ivy League tournament] — it’s always gonna be a good game with them, we really wanted it, and I think that showed.”
The Tigers improved to 20–5 overall and 11–2 in conference play. They remain tied with Columbia (22–4, 11–2) for first place, a tie that will not be broken until the final seconds of the season. Princeton has one remaining game, a tough rematch with Penn (17–9, 9–4), left on their regular season slate. Should they defeat the Quakers on March 3, they will clinch at least a share of the Ivy League regular season title. The match against Penn will be available to stream on ESPN+, with tip-off from the Palestra at 7 p.m.
Isabel Rodrigues is a senior Sports writer for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.