Despite early-season setbacks and a double-digit deficit early in the second half of the Ivy Madness final, Princeton women’s basketball (23–5 overall, 12–2 Ivy League) has emerged victorious, with their fourth Ivy Championship and second-consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament following a 54–48 win over Harvard (17–11, 9–5) Saturday night.
The final was highly physical and extremely competitive; it was Harvard’s first trip to the Tournament final, and Princeton’s NCAA Tournament dreams would be far easier to achieve with a win at Jadwin Gymnasium. But early in the third quarter, Crimson guard McKenzie Forbes buried a deep three, putting the Tigers down by 11 and stifling the momentum Princeton had been building at the start of the second half.”
“We were resilient, tough, and gritty, head coach Carla Berube told the media after the game. “You look at them in the huddle and they’re looking back saying, ‘There’s no way we're losing this.’”
“They stuck together and relied on our defense once again, to get really big stops, big rebounds and found a way to score against a really tough Crimson defense,” she added.
Waving the banner for the Tigers was junior guard Kaitlyn Chen — her consistent scoring throughout the tournament, including 24 points and six rebounds during the win over Harvard, earned her a second-consecutive Ivy Tournament MVP nod, as well as a spot on the Ivy All-Tournament Team.
Junior forward Ellie Mitchell also received All-Tournament honors, as she put up back-to-back double-doubles and was instrumental to Princeton’s signature fierce defense. After the game, Mitchell spoke about how a team that started the Ivy League season with a record of 0–2 could finish with 14 straight conference wins.
“We had a tough start to the regular season, we had two losses, but I think that was good for us,” Mitchell said. “You can't take anything for granted, [you've] really got to work. It's a 40 minute game, there are lots of ups and downs, and we drill it in practice a lot.”
Mitchell smiled, before adding: “We know that no matter what the score is, the game isn’t finished until that last buzzer sounds.”
Having seen Princeton open the first quarter of yesterday’s game against Penn (17–11, 9–5) on a 16–0 run, the Crimson came out strong, matching the Tigers on both ends of the floor. With just under two minutes left in the quarter the score was 15–14 in favor of Harvard, who were led by guard Harmoni Turner. Turner was unstoppable in the first quarter, as she hit four of her five shots from the field. But as the quarter wound down, Chen drew shooting fouls on back-to-back possessions and hit all four free-throws, bringing the Tigers back into the lead. Chen would lead all scorers in the first quarter with an impressive 13 points.
Chen opened the second quarter exactly how she ended the first, drawing a foul on a jump shot and making one of the free throws, extending her tally to 14 points. Harvard and Princeton would trade baskets for the first half of the quarter, with Turner scoring well and also setting up her teammates for open shots. From then on the second quarter quickly fell apart for the Tigers, as they were outscored 17–5 and shot a dismal 14 percent from the field, including 0–5 from three. The Tigers were also out-rebounded 12 to nine in the quarter, while committing four turnovers compared to two for the Crimson. In a quarter that saw the Crimson build their halftime lead to nine, Harvard’s Forbes was instrumental, scoring eight of their 19 points.
“I would want to coach her every day of the week, and I’m tremendously sad that I only get one year with her,” Harvard head coach Carrie Moore said of Forbes after the game. “She’s been through so much this season ... we don’t play here today without McKenzie Forbes.”
The third quarter was much more balanced and with 4:08 remaining, the Crimson lead remained nine points after two free throws from Tigers senior guard Grace Stone. Stone then found Mitchell under the basket for a layup, cutting the lead to seven.
Looking to rattle the Crimson offense, the Tigers soon switched to a rare full-court press, which immediately forced a 10-second backcourt violation, drawing a roaring applause from the crowd at Jadwin Gym.
“We don’t press very often, so the times that we do, I think it really shifts momentum and kind of throws our opponent off,” Mitchell said. “We don’t like being pressed either, so it kind of turns the tables — it’s a good change of pace.”
“I feel like it’s just about having that energy, the momentum that propels us when we do the press. I think it’s always fun,“ Chen added with a grin.
Princeton held Harvard scoreless for nearly five and a half minutes through the second half of the third, as the Crimson missed five consecutive shot attempts. But, as the quarter wound down, Crimson forward Lola Mullaney knocked down two free throws, stretching the Crimson lead to seven at 44–37.
Needing a spark on offense, Mitchell stepped up big for the Tigers, opening the final quarter with a layup set up by Chen. She then grabbed an offensive rebound, and kicked the ball out to senior point guard Maggie Connolly for a three, all while sealing off Connolly’s defender. The Crimson later fouled Chen on a three point shot, and she made two of three free throws to cut the lead to just one at 45–44 with 6:36 left to play.
A quick floater from Turner increased the Harvard lead to three, before a brief scoreless stretch meant the Tigers were down 47–44 with just over four minutes left to play. A free throw from Stone preceded another scoreless drought, and with 2:22 remaining senior guard Julia Cunningham was taken out of the game with an apparent injury with the Tigers trailing 47–45. Cunningham would return on the next possession as Princeton went on to force a shot-clock violation.
“I don’t think she gets enough credit for how good of a defender she is," Mitchell said of Cunningham. “She’s chasing, she’s doing everything, she’s talking and then she’s attacking. She finds open teammates [and] makes great shots herself.”
The following possession saw Chen fouled on a shot attempt, and she hit two clutch free throws to tie the game at 47. But a foul from Cunningham sent Harvard into the bonus, and forward Elena Rodriguez converted one of two free throws, giving the Crimson a one point lead. Everyone, including University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83, was on their feet heading into the final minute of action.
After the timeout, a layup from Mitchell assisted by Stone put the Tigers in the lead for the first time since the second quarter. But another foul from Rodriguez sent Mitchell to the foul line for her first free throws since Princeton’s last game against Harvard.
“I was on the opposite end of the court, so I’m walking up to the foul line, and you know, I’ve struggled throughout my career with foul shots,“ Mitchell, who has shot just 40 percent on free throws this season, recounted. “But you know, we practice situations like this all the time. All my teammates came up to me, they said, ‘You got this, they're going in, you got this.’”
Chen, always eager to encourage her teammates, chimed in: “I turned to [Cunningham] and I was like: ‘Ellie’s making these two.’”
A confident Mitchell stepped up to the line and sank both free throws. As the second shot snapped through the hoop, pushing the Princeton lead to 51–48, the crowd of Princeton fans exploded in cheers as the possibility of Tiger victory came into view.
As Harvard’s Rodriguez missed two free throws on the next play, the largely orange and black-clad crowd went into a frenzy, eager to see their home team crowned champions again. But to add to the tension in the atmosphere, Chen missed two from the line, keeping the crowd at bay, and the Tiger advantage at only three.
No matter: an ensuing foul sent first-year guard Madison St. Rose to the free throw line. She split the first pair, but was key in executing a huge defensive stop on the next play, and was fouled once again. Back in the same scenario, St. Rose was fouled again — this time, she made both shots, securing the 54–48 win and the Ivy League Tournament title.
“I think one of the best things about [St. Rose] is she’s so composed the entire game,” Mitchell said. “No matter how she’s playing, she’s just very level headed and I think that's really unique for a freshman you know.”
“I know sometimes [as first-years], we’re running around like chickens with their heads cut off,” Mitchell added, before Berube, with a knowing smile, interrupted and responded: “I know you were as freshmen.”
Both Mitchell and Chen laughed before Mitchell continued — “We have so much confidence in her, you know. She grows every game, especially on the defensive end ... that’s going to be big next year when we lose a lot of our senior leadership.”
Ultimately, Princeton held Harvard to four points on eight percent shooting from the field in the fourth quarter, as they fueled a thrilling comeback victory. The Tigers shot just 30.8 percent from the field as a team, but committed 11 fouls to Harvard's 18. After five lead changes and six ties, the Tigers treated Jadwin Gym to another all-time classic.
Now, having earned an automatic berth as a result of winning the Ivy Tournament, Princeton will look ahead to the NCAA Tournament. After shocking the nation by defeating Southeastern Conference champion Kentucky in the first round last year, the Tigers have their sights set on repeating that success, and more.
“I think we’re all super excited,” Chen said. “We got that feeling after losing in Indiana last year, we want to win one more game and like we want to be in the Sweet 16. So I think we’re gonna use that and hopefully [it] helps push us into the next round.”
The Tigers’ seeding and first-round opponent will be revealed on ESPN at 8 p.m. on Sunday, March 12. They’ll join a 68-team field, which will begin tournament play with the First Four on Wednesday, March 15. The first and second round games will begin on Friday, March 17.
Isabel Rodrigues is a senior writer for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
Tony Owens is a contributor to the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
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