PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — One of the most dramatic Ivy League women’s basketball seasons has finally come to an end, and the Tigers are coming out on top. For the fifth year in a row, and the 17th time in program history, Princeton women’s basketball (21–5 overall, 12–2 Ivy League) has been crowned regular-season Ivy League champions.
On Friday, March 3, on the floor of Penn’s historic Palestra in front of a crowd of 2,671, the Tigers rallied back from a seven-point first-half deficit to defeat the Penn Quakers (17–10, 9–5) by a final score of 71–52. A 20-point first half from junior guard Kaitlyn Chen helped keep Princeton above water before the Tigers stepped on the gas in the third quarter, outscoring the Quakers 27–7 and never looking back.
After dropping two consecutive losses to Harvard and Columbia earlier in the season, the Tigers went on to win 13 consecutive games, with all but one win coming by at least a 10-point margin. Princeton finishes the regular season 21–5 overall, with its three non-conference losses coming to teams currently ranked in the top 15 by the Associated Press (AP).
“For me, this [Ivy League title] definitely feels the best. It was the hardest one to get to,” senior guard and captain Maggie Connolly told The Daily Princetonian.
“I feel like we’ve been playing from the bottom, like we found ourselves in a hole and we’ve been climbing up ever since. So it feels amazing to finally get here,” she added.
But the final win did not come easy. With Penn celebrating its Senior Day and fighting with Harvard for the No. 3 seed in Ivy Madness, the Quakers had no shortage of reasons to make it a battle to the very end.
Princeton opened the match shooting a demoralizing 23.1 percent from the field, allowing Penn to take a slight advantage through the first quarter. The Tigers were just a step too slow to catch Penn guard Kayla Padilla, the league’s second leading scorer, as she nailed a quick three-pointer for the Quakers, who held the lead for the first half.
Chen was able to draw a couple of fouls in the paint, as her free throws and a couple jump shots from other Tigers kept Princeton within single digits. But the Tigers missed layups, suffered turnovers, and experienced defensive miscommunications that allowed the Quakers to stay in front. Penn’s centers were particularly effective, using their height to crowd the paint and getting open layups inside.
“Penn played really well in that first half, and I thought we were a little rattled for a bit,” head coach Carla Berube told the ‘Prince.’ “Then, suddenly Kaitlyn caught fire and really kept us afloat.”
Of Princeton’s seven made shots in the second quarter, six of them belonged to Chen. Whether it was three-pointers, her specialty mid-range jumpers, or fast-break layups, she did not miss. Slowly, Chen’s consistent scoring pushed the Tigers to pick up the pace, and the Princeton defense began to tighten up. With just under four minutes left in the quarter, senior guard Grace Stone interrupted a poorly placed Penn pass, allowing Connolly to pick off the ball and push it up the floor to a sprinting Chen, who dumped in a quick layup.
Despite playing similar positions, Connolly and Chen’s playstyles have created a high-speed, electric version of Princeton's offense. Chen told the ‘Prince’ that despite limited time to work together in practice, she enjoys any opportunity to bring the ball up with Connolly.
“She’s one of my favorite people to play with,” Chen said, with an ear-to-ear grin. “We’re always like ‘Can we just play together?’ — we like, beg our coaches. It’s just good to have someone who looks out for you.”
The 14 points Chen contributed kept the Penn lead from growing significantly and even cut the deficit to just two points by halftime, but it was clear Princeton would need more from the rest of its roster to build a lead instead of trading baskets with Penn.
Even as shot after shot bounced out, Chen’s confidence that the team’s shooting woes would turn around never wavered.
“It’s just about knowing [shots] are going to fall at some point,” she told the ‘Prince.’ “I just felt like if we run our sets and get good shots, eventually we’re going to knock them down.”
Coming out of halftime, the tide began to turn for the Tigers as the defensive momentum they had built at the end of the second quarter came to a head in the third. They forced Penn to take tough shots deep into each shot clock, grabbed bad passes, and, just like Chen had predicted, finally started to see shots go in.
“Our defense came up that entire third quarter, and it really fueled our offense,” said Berube. “It was just much better basketball.”
By the end of the game, the Tigers had converted 24 Penn turnovers into 29 points while committing just seven turnovers themselves, all but one of them coming in the first half. It wasn’t just coming from their transition offense, either — from quick ball movement and off-ball action, to improved rebounding numbers and limiting Penn’s offensive rebounds, it was as if every aspect of Princeton’s game had been turned up a notch.
The Palestra, which had been rocking with the cheers of excited Quaker fans, suddenly took on a more frustrated tone — picture a jubilant cathedral slowly going silent, save for the pocket of orange-and-black-clad Princeton fans that had congregated behind the Tiger bench.
Even as the Quakers tried a full court press to open the fourth quarter, Princeton’s renewed offensive energy, combined with their quick-switching defense, held off any chance for a Penn comeback. In the final minute, Chen drove into the paint, drawing two defenders and immediately kicking the ball out to Stone, who was already set to shoot. Catching Chen’s beeline pass strong, Stone nailed her third three-pointer of the night, sealing the game in the Tigers’ favor. Sophomore forward Katie Thiers dropped in one more layup in the final seconds, making the final score 71–52.
“To get where we’re at, they’re a tough group,” Berube told ESPN. “[The Palestra] is a really tough place to play, and we know that. There’s a great rivalry here dating back many years, and we knew we needed a great game to beat Penn in their own gym.”
As the buzzer rang out for Princeton’s 17th double-digit win of the season, a sea of orange jerseys came together at center court, jumping and cheering as a massive trophy made its way to the Princeton bench. For a roster that had dealt with season cancellations, major injuries, and faced one of its toughest regular seasons since Berube arrived, it was a clear sigh of relief.
“After those two losses [to Harvard and Columbia], we just got back to work and showed up every day,” Berube said after the game. “We stayed together, stayed resilient, and here we are — Ivy League Champs.”
The Tigers have also secured the No. 1 seed in the upcoming Ivy Madness Women's Tournament, which will take place at Jadwin Gym on March 10 and 11. In Friday’s semifinal round, Princeton will rematch with No. 4-seeded Penn, while No. 2 Columbia (23–4, 12–2) takes on No. 3 Harvard (16–10, 9–5) at 7 p.m. The winners of each semifinal round will advance to the championship game, which will tip-off at 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Isabel Rodrigues is a senior Sports writer for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.