SALT LAKE CITY, Ut. — Ain't no mountain high enough — even when you're Princeton women's basketball, down by five with less than a minute remaining, and exhausted from the high altitude deep in the Rockies.
In a miraculous final minute of play in Salt Lake City on Friday night, the 10th-seeded Tigers (24–5 overall, 12–2 Ivy League) overcame this deficit to defeat seven-seed N.C. State (20–12, 9–9 Atlantic Coast) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, thanks to a last-second, ice-cold three from senior guard Grace Stone.
"She's got ice in her veins," head coach Carla Berube said of Stone after the game. "She has that look in her eyes and you know she's gonna make a play, she's gonna hit a shot."
The baseline three was just enough for Princeton to scrape by with a 64–63 victory, and a trip to the second round in tow. The win is the Tigers’ second-consecutive victory in the Round of 64, following their victory last year over Kentucky. It’s also their 16th-straight win this season.
"It just feels a little bit like our Ivy League championship win, where we just had to grind it out and just get really gritty," Berube said. "[We] just made the plays, made the shots and we're advancing. That's what it's about."
Princeton opened the first quarter on a 6–0 run, though none of the points came easy — it took nearly a full minute for either team to get a shot off, and both teams struggled to get into the paint early on. Although the first half would see free-flowing offense at times, this stretch was indicative of how the game largely played out; two offenses struggling to make shots, and two defenses making everything difficult.
Despite trailing by six at the half, the Tigers threw the first punch in the third quarter, opening on a 10–0 run to take a four point lead. The two teams traded baskets, but N.C. State's size inside once again got the better of Princeton, as they dropped the lead in the final minutes, and ended up down four after a couple of key Wolfpack free throws.
Halfway through the fourth quarter, the Wolfpack kicked into gear in transition and snagged two key fastbreak layups, pushing the lead to 63–55 with 5:41 remaining to play. Junior forward Ellie Mitchell hauled in multiple key offensive boards, but the Tigers struggled to convert them, as layups, jumpshots, and three-pointers, rattled out.
With Mitchell primarily assigned to defending NC State's forwards, most of whom had an inch or two on her, Berube says their defensive success came down to leaning on Mitchell's strengths and getting others involved:
"It was just [about] using her quickness getting around because that's what she has," Berube said of Mitchell. "Their posts are so strong and so good inside … but she had some help from her teammates, digging in and doubling."
"And she's really scrappy, getting jump balls, blocks and steals — it's just Ellie being Ellie."
Even as Stone finally sank a three-pointer to end the scoring drought, and the Tigers grabbed quite literally every rebound, they continued to trail by five heading into the final two minutes. At long last, a shot finally snapped through — junior guard Kaitlyn Chen hit a searing three-pointer, cutting the lead to just two with less than a minute to go, at 63–61.
On the next possession, first-year guard Madison St. Rose grabbed a clutch steal, sending the ball back Princeton's way. But senior guard Julia Cunningham's layup attempt went just sideways, and the Tigers were back on the defensive, where this time, Stone was the one to grab a quick steal off of the Wolfpack's inbound pass.
The Tigers had one last chance, and as precious seconds ticked away, Stone came free off of a screen on the right wing, and drained a three-pointer to give the Tigers a one-point lead with 4.7 seconds left. One last defensive effort from the Tigers found them scrambling on the floor for the loose ball as the final buzzer sounded.
"We've kind of been in tight games all year," Stone said after the game. "I think my teammates just have all the confidence in the world in me and I knew that if I missed that shot, they were getting good offensive rebounds."
"So it's really hard not to shoot with confidence when you have teammates like mine," she added.
Despite going nearly nine minutes without a made field goal at one point during the second half, the Tigers walked away with a win, thanks in large part to their stifling defense; indeed, the Tigers did not give up a single basket to the Wolfpack — who had made four straight Sweet 16 appearances entering this season — after the 5:44 mark of the final quarter.
With the men making this year’s NCAA Tournament and winning their opening game against Arizona, Princeton is now the first Ivy League school to win a game in both the women’s and men’s Tournaments in the same season.
The win is also the third March Madness victory in program history. The Tigers will look to make their first-ever Sweet 16 by defeating second-seeded Utah (26–4, 15–3 Pac-12) on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET. The game will be available to stream on ESPN2.
Isabel Rodrigues is a senior writer for the Sports section at the 'Prince.' Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.