Don your dancing shoes and grab an extra bottle of water — Princeton women’s basketball (23–5 overall, 12–2 Ivy League) is back in the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year, and this time, they're doing it at 4,800 feet above sea level.
After narrowly defeating Harvard (18–11, 9–5) in an all-time classic Ivy Madness final, the Tigers claimed their fourth Ivy League Tournament Title and punched their tickets to March Madness. On Sunday, Mar. 12, fans, families, and the team gathered in Jadwin Gymnasium for one final time, patiently awaiting the reveal of the NCAA Tournament bracket.
“I mean, the anticipation is killer,” senior guard Grace Stone told The Daily Princetonian. “You never know when your name is gonna be called. We kept seeing games go by, possible regions that we thought we could be in.”
In the women's tournament, the 64-team bracket is split into four regionals. Within each regional, the field is ranked, No. 1 through No. 16, and then it is further broken down into pods of four teams who play each other in the First and Second Rounds. The first two rounds are hosted by the top seed within each pod of four teams, and the winner from each pod advances to the Sweet 16.
Sites across the country flew by as the Tigers patiently waited for the name to be called. From Los Angeles, Ca. to Greenville, S.C., to College Park, Md., it wasn’t until No. 2-seeded Utah’s pod was announced that the No. 10-seeded Tigers would hear their name called up — though not to take on Salt Lake City hosts Utah, but instead, the No. 7-seeded North Carolina State Wolfpack.
“When you finally see your name go up, it’s an incredible feeling,” Stone said. “It’s like a manifestation of all the work you've put in all season.”
“I mean, a 10-seed, it’s awesome,” she added. “I think we’ve shown that we’re a tournament team and that we can be successful in the tournament, not just make it [in].”
N.C. State (20–11, 9–9 Atlantic Coast) presents a brand new challenge for Princeton, as this will be the first all-time meeting between the two teams. What’s more, since they'll be playing at Utah’s home court, all of the action will take place at altitude. As a program, the Tigers have only ever played in the Rocky Mountain region a handful of times — and not once in the last 20 years.
“I coached with USA Basketball for a couple summers, and we were in Colorado Springs, so I definitely could feel the difference,” head coach Carla Berube told the ‘Prince’ about the effects of high altitude on the game. “But you know, I was only coaching — when you’re playing it’s even more different.”
Running with the Wolves: Inside the N.C. State Matchup
N.C. State finished eighth in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), and lost a close game to Notre Dame (25–5, 15–3) in the third round of the ACC Tournament. Per Her Hoop Stats, they’re the 20th-best defensive rebounding team in the country, hauling in 28.9 per game, and they take good care of the ball, turning the ball over on just 15.8 percent of all possessions while averaging just 13.6 fouls per game.
However, tides turned the evening before game day, as the Wolfpack’s point guard and leading scorer Diamond Johnson was ruled out of the game while she rehabs a persistent ankle injury. Johnson also sat out the ACC Tournament. Without a key floor general leading the way, N.C. State head coach Wes Moore emphasized that his team was looking to hit reset:
“We’ve gone out and played some great teams and [we] hope that that helps [us] as well,” Moore told media on Thursday. “But this is a new season, so in some ways you toss all that out and it’s about who comes with the passion and the energy.”
Similarly to the Tigers, the Wolfpack is strongest in the mid-range and in the paint. Per CBB Analytics, they shoot slightly above the Division I average when attempting from between 4–15 feet from the rim. With two top centers in River Baldwin and Camille Hobby and a top-class forward in Mimi Collins, the Wolfpack have plenty of options in the post, but without Johnson to help facilitate, N.C. State will need to find someone else to help get the ball inside.
“They’re really strong in transition … and score really, really well at the rim,” Berube said of N.C. State during a press conference on Thursday. “We’ve got to communicate really well with each other … and take great shots on the offensive end so that defensively we’re back and ready to execute our game plan.”
The Wolfpack have been one of the more inconsistent teams in the Power Five conferences this year, most likely because they graduated four starters in 2022. Finishing just 9–9 in ACC play, this will be the first NCAA Tournament since 2016–17 where N.C. State has been granted a seed lower than four. With so many compounding factors, and the momentum on Princeton’s side, there’s plenty of reason to believe the Tigers, who returned all but two players from last year’s Round of 32 team, have a shot at an upset.
“I think having any experience in the tournament is gonna be really helpful for us,” said senior guard Julia Cunningham. “Especially last year, playing against a really athletic Kentucky team in the first round … and looking back on our season so far, we’ve had games where we’ve had to battle back from deficits at halftime, even going into the fourth quarter.”
“Our mentality is always the underdog mentality,” she continued. “That’s how we love to play, with a chip on our shoulder. So that’s still how we’re coming in and how we’re preparing this week.”
The Tigers will tip off against the Wolfpack at the Jon M. Huntsman Center of the University of Utah on Friday, Mar. 17 at 10 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.