This is the number of consecutive regular season home games the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (2–1 overall, 0–0 Conference USA) won dating back to March 4, 2021.
On Sunday afternoon, this streak came crashing down when the Princeton Tigers (2–0, 0–0 Ivy League) came to town. Despite being down by as much as 14 points in the second quarter, the Tigers rallied to defeat the Blue Raiders, 65–60. First-year guard Skye Belker led the Tigers in scoring with 18 points.
The main concern for the Tigers during the game was foul trouble. In the fourth quarter, two of their starters — sophomore guard Madison St. Rose and senior guard Kaitlyn Chen — fouled out of the game. Head Coach Carla Berube was forced to turn to her bench, which pulled through in the final minutes of the game. Four of the six Tigers who were featured in the last two minutes of the contest were non-starters, but they made crucial stops to seal the win.
“We stayed poised,” Berube told The Daily Princetonian. “We had really great contributions off the bench from our [first-years] and returners. I was really proud of everyone for staying the course. We don’t look at the scoreboard, we really try to play possession by possession and win each possession on both ends of the court."
After St. Rose drilled a three-pointer from the top of the key to give the Tigers a 9–4 lead, it was all Blue Raiders. Middle Tennessee went on a 10–0 run, holding Princeton scoreless for five straight possessions, and took a 14–9 lead towards the end of the first quarter. Chen ended the run with a corner three.
After the three by Chen, the Tigers were held scoreless for the remaining 2:56 of the first quarter. A combination of missed shots along with defensive stops by the home team made it difficult for the visiting Tigers. As the clock was ticking down, guard Jalynn Gregory drew a four-point play for the Blue Raiders. Despite missing the free throw to complete the play, the three gave Middle Tennessee a crucial 19–12 advantage after 10 minutes.
Chen and senior forward Ellie Mitchell got the scoring started early in the second. However, the Tigers were unable to stop the Blue Raiders offensively. Middle Tennessee held a 24–16 lead with 7:27 to go in the half.
For the next three minutes, the Tigers were scoreless, as turnovers and offensive fouls put the visitors in a big hole. After Gregory knocked down her third three of the first half, the Blue Raiders held a 14-point lead, the largest of the game.
Eager to cut the deficit before the halftime break, the Tigers flipped a switch following the three by Gregory. Junior forward Katie Thiers scored to cut the lead to 12. After a stop defensively, it was Thiers again who scored a 15-footer.
“She did a really great job against their center,” Berube said of Thiers.
The Tigers remained composed, trying to crawl back into the game with every possession. Down 31–21, Belker hit two free throws to make it an eight-point game. In the following offensive possession, Belker scored in transition to make it 31–25.
Heading into the break, the Tigers were down by five points, 31–26, after junior forward Parker Hill hit one of two free throws. The visitors were able to hold the Blue Raiders to just one point in the final four minutes of the half.
“I was feeling good that we were only down five after that tough first quarter and a half,” Berube said. “During halftime, we just made a couple adjustments of what we needed to run offensively. Defensively, we needed to tighten up our ball screen defense and our players did a great job of executing our game-plan in the third and fourth quarters.”
Coming out of the locker room, Middle Tennessee looked to maintain their lead. Princeton had no answer for Gregory, who hit a corner three to make it 36–28 with 7:37 remaining.
On the other end of the court, Chen hit a tough one-handed floater through traffic to respond. On the next possession, St. Rose hit another tough shot with a hand in her face to cut the lead to four. After a stop by the Tigers, the foul trouble started when the refs called a charge against St. Rose during the fast break — marking her fourth foul of the contest.
Princeton, however, kept on fighting. After the Blue Raiders doubled team Mitchell, she found Belker at the top of the key who hit a three-pointer for the Tigers to make it a one-point game. Mitchell continued to attract attention in the post throughout the quarter.
With 2:38 to go, Mitchell assisted first-year guard Ashley Chea’s three-pointer. Both teams continued to exchange baskets, failing to stop one another from scoring. With just over a minute remaining in the third, Belker connected on a three from the corner to give Princeton its first lead since the middle of the first quarter. The three sparked a 6–0 mini-run to end the third quarter, giving Princeton an important 48–44 lead heading into the final 10 minutes.
Thiers hit a corner three to get the scoring started in the final quarter, making it 51–44. Down by nine after a shot by Mitchell, the Blue Raiders knew they needed to work offensively to get a chance to cut the lead.
“I think that the biggest key to our success last night was our grit, which has always been a big focus for us,” Mitchell wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “No matter how a game is going, our team is always gonna fight it out for the full forty minutes and I think that that’s what we did last night."
“It was a fun but tough environment to play in, and we definitely had a lot thrown at us, especially in terms of foul trouble, but I think we did a really great job sticking together and battling it out until that last buzzer sounded,” she added.
With 3:30 left in the quarter, Chen fouled out for the Tigers, making way for her former high school teammate Ashley Chea to fill her shoes. Chea and Chen both graduated from Flintridge Preparatory School in La Cañada, California. Chen graduated in 2020 while Chea graduated this past June.
“We’ve got some really great talent [among the first-years] and some great returners. Our depth and the way we run can really wear down teams which was displayed against Middle Tennessee yesterday,” Berube told the ‘Prince.’
Chea made an immediate impact, scoring a long two-pointer to make it 57–48 Princeton. The Blue Raiders responded on the other end, with Gregory hitting her fifth triple of the game to cut the Tigers’ lead to six. Things continued to go downhill for Princeton, as Mitchell was charged with an intentional foul, resulting in two free throws and the ball back for Middle Tennessee.
After the Blue Raiders hit both free throws, they drew a foul on St. Rose. The reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year fouled out as a result, with junior guard Amelia Osgood stepping in to replace her. Osgood, in her home state of Tennessee, needed to help seal the game for the Tigers. With two minutes remaining, the Blue Raiders had remarkably cut the lead to two, 57–55.
Throughout the next two minutes, the Princeton defense made the stops it needed to stop the home team from tying the game. Chea made four free throws in a row to maintain the lead. With six seconds remaining, the Tigers were up 63–60. Middle Tennessee fouled Osgood, who hit two free throws to seal the win just 40 minutes away from her hometown, Brentwood.
The 14-point comeback marked the second-largest comeback in the Carla Berube era. With the win, the Tigers secured an important Quad-1 win. On the road, beating a team in the top 75 of RPI rankings is defined as a Quadrant–1 win. Heading into the game, the Blue Raiders were in the top 30.
The non-conference schedule will continue for the Tigers this weekend as they will travel to Los Angeles to play the No. 3 ranked University of California — Los Angeles (3–0, 0–0 Pac-12) on Friday afternoon. The game will be at 2:30 p.m. eastern live from the Pac-12 network. Los Angeles is the hometown of three Tigers: Belker, Chea, and Chen. The game against the Bruins will be a huge test for a Princeton team who wants to compete with the best of the best. Following the game on Friday, the Tigers will head to San Diego to finish the California trip with a game against the University of San Diego Toreros (2–0, 0–0 West Coast Conference).
“I think we are looking at all of these games as a great opportunity,” Mitchell added. “We’re just taking it one day at a time, focusing on us and continuing to put our pieces together. These games will be stepping stones for us to continue to find our identity as a team, and we are excited for what’s to come.”
Hayk Yengibaryan is an associate editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
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