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Women’s basketball closes season with NCAA second round loss to Utah, 63–56

The Tigers end the season with just six losses, though the last may have been the hardest to bear

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Junior forward Ellie Mitchell led the Tigers with 18 rebounds. 
Courtesy of @Princeton/Twitter.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The final curtain has been drawn on the 2022–23 Princeton women’s basketball season. 

On Sunday, March 19, after being just two points shy of the lead with seven minutes to play, the Tigers (24–6 overall, 12–2 Ivy League) dropped a heartbreaking Round of 32 loss to the Utah Utes (27–4, 15–3 Pac-12) in the NCAA Tournament. It’s the second-consecutive loss for the Tigers in the second round of March Madness, with both losses coming by single-digit deficits. 

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“We feel like we came up short of our goal, but I think we battled from minute one to minute 40,” head coach Carla Berube told The Daily Princetonian after the game. “I couldn’t be prouder of my team and how hard we played.”

“This game doesn’t define our season. We had an awesome, awesome ride and our five seniors have been just incredible,” she added.

The Tigers opened strong, matching every bucket Utah put up, and even taking the lead off of a coast-to-coast layup from first-year guard Madison St. Rose. However, after a couple of unsavory turnovers in the fast-break and back-to-back defensive breakdowns inside, the door opened for the Utes to take a five-point lead with a third of the first quarter left to play.

Even as the Tigers forced five Utah turnovers, they continued to struggle inside on both ends of the court. A dagger three-pointer from Utah’s Alissa Pili put the Utes up by 10, before junior guard Kaitlyn Chen took Pili to the rim on the final play of the first quarter, cutting the lead to single digits as time expired.

As the Tigers continued to experiment with methods for overwhelming Utah’s forwards, the Utes continued to get points in the paint. A combination of Pili’s passing and forward Jenna Johnson finding cuts to the basket kept the momentum going for Utah, who were also forcing the Tigers to play at their breakneck pace. 

With 5:45 left in the second quarter, senior guard Maggie Connolly entered the game and hit a deep three, pulling the Tigers back within 10, just as Princeton’s defense began to tighten. Berube’s squad went on to force five Utah turnovers in the last five minutes of the half, and by halftime, they had pulled within six points of the Utes.

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“I think we finally clicked a little bit better defensively toward the end of the second quarter,” Berube said after the game. “[We] started really helping each other out, helping inside, [and] doing a better job of containing.”

Utah’s head coach Lynne Roberts says they felt the impact straight away. 

“That was hard. They are tough and you can see why they are such a good program,” she said. “It’s not just a good team this year. They are just a great program, well-coached, disciplined, physical, [and] fearless. We just couldn't pull away.”

The second half was even more physical than the first, as players from both teams crowded the paint, grabbed steals, and laid down blocks. But despite Princeton’s efforts, their shots were not hitting pay dirt. It wasn’t until deep in the third quarter that the net started to snap in favor of Princeton.

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Utah’s defense was scrambled, as Chen dumped in a couple floaters and senior guard Grace Stone hit a key three-pointer, cutting the lead to as few as two. As if to foreshadow the end of the game, a fifth team foul with just seconds remaining would allow the Utes to stay ahead by four as the third quarter buzzer sounded.

“You know, they just have so many threats out there,” Berube said. “There’s some fouling that we did [that] put them on the line [and] they got a lot of points that way. It’s just tough because we play aggressive defense, and I think at times we were a second late on things.”

The fourth quarter began similarly: Utah went on a run, but the Tigers responded, bringing the deficit back down to two. But with just over three minutes left in the quarter, Princeton hit five team fouls, sending the Utes in the bonus and to the free throw line with every foul that followed, enough for six trips to the free throw line, nine points, and an insurmountable lead. 

Even as Stone hit a deep three-pointer and Connolly was fouled on a three-point shot with eight seconds to play, it wasn’t enough to overcome the deficit.

As the final buzzer sounded, the final score was set in favor of the Utes, 63–56. The sea of red-and-white clad Utah fans exploded in cheers, just as they had throughout the game. Princeton’s own fans, which had gathered behind the team’s bench, somberly looked on as the team walked off the court, players arm in arm, for the final time this year.

“You want to leave it all out on the floor and you don’t want to have any regrets,” Stone reflected. “I think that when you play with all of your heart, it’s hard to have those.”

Junior forward Ellie Mitchell was indispensable to the Tigers’ defense, as well as their offense. She hauled in 18 rebounds (including 10 offensive boards) on the night, along with nine points and three assists, while also being the primary defender on Pili. But beyond the numbers, it was Mitchell’s energy and unending effort that seemed to keep the Princeton engine running — even as they hit just three shots in the final quarter.

“That girl puts her body on the line every single day, every single practice, every game,” Stone said of Mitchell after the game. “It’s something that [we’ve] always preached, that toughness wins basketball games. I think that this team is really good because we do the dirty work, we do the work nobody else wants to do.”

Stone and Chen, despite making just 11 shots between them, combined for 35 of the Tigers’ 56 points. For Stone, who had a career-high 22 points in the Tigers’ first round win over NC State and 16 points against Utah, it was just the second time in her career posting back-to-back games with 15 or more points scored.

The loss marks an end of an era in Princeton women’s basketball — five Tigers will graduate this spring, including two starters in Stone and Cunningham, and all remaining and incoming players will have only known Berube’s program. Despite this, after back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tournament, and the meteoric rise of two stars in Chen and Mitchell, there may still be plenty of magic left for years to come.

But, if there’s one thing this program has shown its community, and the nation at large, it’s that a defensive-minded team will always be in the fight until the very end — even when the shots just don’t fall.

Isabel Rodrigues is a senior writer for the Sports section at the 'Prince.' Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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