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Get Stops: How women’s basketball’s defense led to their dominance

A bench full of women in black jerseys jump up in excitement.
During Carla Berube's tenure as head coach, the Tigers have just three losses in Ivy League play.
Photo courtesy of @PrincetonWBB/X

70–25 is a score you usually see in a video game.

In mid-February, it was quite real on the scoreboard in New Haven, as the final buzzer sounded after the women’s basketball team thrashed the Yale Bulldogs. It marked the 15th consecutive win for the Tigers. 

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Holding a Division I team to 25 points across 40 minutes seems absurd, but this type of defensive dominance has grown common for this year’s squad.

“I don’t think we have any special schemes, that sounds like we’re doing something evil,” head coach Carla Berube jokingly told The Daily Princetonian. “We kind of fall back to just playing fundamentally sound, especially on the defensive end.” 

Despite what Berube may claim, what Princeton has done to opposing offenses during her tenure has been at least slightly evil. They’ve allowed just 51.7 points per Ivy League contest this season — every other team in the conference allows 60 or more points on average. 

The Tigers have lost just three Ivy League games during Berube’s tenure. No other Ivy League team has been ranked in the AP top 25 since 1980 — the Tigers have done it all four years under Berube. 

The Tigers’ worst postseason finish under Berube so far has been a loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The rest of the Ivy League has seen the second round of the tournament just once.

There’s no doubt that Princeton has been nothing but dominant through Berube’s tenure, but how have they reached this high level? Their team motto for the last few seasons has been “Get Stops,” and the suffocating defense served up by the Tigers has been the force behind that. In a world where the transfer portal has taken over college basketball, Princeton’s player development has produced leaders up and down the bench. Coupled with high-profile, competitive games against high-ranked opponents early in the season, the Tigers have all of the tools they need to make another run in March.

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Defensive Roots

When Berube took over the program for the 2019-20 season, there was an immediate culture shift on the team. The defensive identity that they are so comfortable with today began when she took the helm, as they went from allowing 63.7 points per game to just 47.6 on their way to a 26–1 season before their opportunity to make a run in March Madness was spoiled by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The current offense, led by senior guard Kaitlyn Chen, has increased the tempo and created more overall possessions each game, leading to higher-scoring games. Although the Tigers' faster pace has led to higher-scoring games — and thus a higher points-per-game from their opponents — since Berube first joined, their defense remains where their stellar success has come from.

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“We’re going to work really hard on this end of the floor and make you take a tough shot or create a turnover or shot clock violation or things like that,” Berube said. “It’s who we are … we love to play defense.”

The defensive identity that Princeton women’s basketball has become known for is deeply rooted in the style of play Berube learned in her collegiate career and her staff utilized in their previous roles. A college player at powerhouse UConn, Berube finished her playing career with a 132–8 record and made a name for herself as a lockdown defender. 

As a former player herself, and leader of a staff who almost all played at the college level, Berube recognizes the unique environment of college basketball.

“Once I’ve opened lines of communication with my players, their experience within our program is of utmost importance to me,” she said. “You know, wins and wins are great. But for me, I want to make sure this is an experience that they’re really enjoying … they really are students first but don’t have to sacrifice the basketball piece.”

After her college career, Berube found even more success as head coach of Division III Tufts University for 17 years. As a preview of her accomplished leadership at Princeton, they regularly found success and perennially made deep runs in the Division III tournament, fueled by a focus on strong defense.

As Berube transitioned to Princeton in 2019, she brought former players and staff to form the core of her coaching staff at Old Nassau. Assistant Coach Lauren Dillon and Director of Basketball Operations Lilly Paro both played under Berube for the Jumbos, while Assistant Coach Lauren Battista had the same role at Tufts.

“We joke about some of the plays that we run now, I was running back at Tufts when I was a point guard for Coach Berube,” Dillon told the ‘Prince.’ “Obviously, we have some different personnel out here at Princeton than we did at Tufts. But a lot of the concepts have stayed the same.”

Dynamic duo forms core of Tigers squad

Berube’s reputation for leading a defense-focused team has not gone unnoticed in the Ivy League. Senior forward Ellie Mitchell is a two-time reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and the runaway favorite to win the award once again this season. Mitchell has been at the heart of the Tigers' defense since arriving in Berube’s first year.

Ellie Mitchell holds white ball in front of Princeton crowd.
Ellie Mitchell receives a special ball marking her 1,000th career rebound.
Photo courtesy of @PrincetonWBB/X

“I think it’s very easy to care about the offensive side of the game, but it’s harder to care about the little things and getting stops and that is what defines Ellie. It’s the work ethic. It’s the little plays that create the big ones,” Dillon said.

Fighting for everything from loose balls to rebounds is what has made Mitchell a star and a leader for Princeton. At 6’1”, she is the tallest starter for Princeton and has pulled down an average of 10.3 rebounds a game for the Tigers. Without Mitchell, much of the Tigers’ dominant defense would dissolve.

“I always say after a game that I’m so glad she’s on our team, because it would be really bad and just frustrating to have to play against her,” Berube said in praise of Mitchell.

While defense is and will remain Princeton’s calling card, no great team is complete without a dangerous offense. 

Senior guard Kaitlyn Chen is the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year and has been the floor general who takes the reins for the Tigers offensively. Leading the way by averaging 15.5 points per game for Princeton, Chen is the one that the Tigers turn to in crunch time. 

“Kaitlyn can score at literally every position on the floor but she’s getting double and triple teams, and she knows when she needs to jump up and kick out and find the open player,” Dillon said about Chen. “This year, she’s become a floor general and a really good passer.”

No stage has proven to be too big for Chen this season. 

A close road test against Villanova? A career-high 31 points. 

The stifling defense of then No. 3 UCLA while back home in SoCal? A team-high 24 points that took the Bruins to the buzzer. 

A double overtime slugfest against Seton Hall when Princeton shots weren’t falling? 21 points and game-clinching shots.

Chen is built for the big stage and will be looking to pick up her third-straight Ivy Madness Most Outstanding Player award in New York in just a few weeks. 

“Kaitlyn’s at her very best when something’s not drawn up, and she can just create,” Berube said.

Paired with Mitchell’s defensive prowess, Chen and Mitchell have proven to be the driving forces behind the Tigers success under Berube's leadership.

A complete team

While Chen and Mitchell have rightfully had the spotlight, the entire team is filled with talent. Sophomore guard Madison St. Rose won the Ivy League Rookie of the Year award last season and has proven to be a crucial multi-level scoring threat, averaging 13.9 points per game with 40 triples across the season. First-year guard Skye Belker has shown maturity and playmaking skills beyond her years, while senior forward Chet Nweke has also emerged. She started the season coming off the bench without much playing time, but she broke into the starting lineup during Ivy play and has reached double-digit points in six of the team’s last seven games.

And these are just the current starters.

The Tiger bench regularly outplays the opposing bench and has gained lots of experience in lopsided Ivy games. Come Ivy Madness and March Madness, an Ashley Chea triple, Parker Hill block, or Tabitha Amanze rebound could make the difference down the stretch. 

“Everybody knows about Kaitlyn, everybody knows about Ellie and Maddie, but I think you can’t just focus in on them,” Berube added, emphasizing the importance of the Tiger bench.

And no matter the score or situation, the energy on the bench is always high.

“We love going through the photos and the videos after every single game because we see our bench is on their feet, jumping up and down, celebrating the big moments, the little moments, the times where we’re not playing our best, they’re there [on] a consistent basis,” Dillon added.

Group of women in white jerseys cheering.
The energy of the bench has been a constant for Princeton throughout the season.
Photo courtesy of @PrincetonWBB/X

Shining on the national stage

The team’s success has led to national spotlight. Ivy League teams rarely find themselves on national television or gaining traction in March Madness projections, but Princeton has done both throughout the season. 

“I think through our success over the past few years and this year included, we started to demand the attention of people in the area and all-around,” Dillon explained.

A big part of the attention has come from repeated strong showings throughout a tough non-conference schedule for Princeton. 

An obstacle for high-level Ivy teams hoping to make it to March Madness has historically been a weak strength of schedule, since many of the 14 games of Ivy play are ones in which they are heavily favored. This translates into lower March Madness seeding and lower positions in metrics-based rankings like the NET rating, since league wins are perceived as them securing easy wins, rather than picking up meaningful victories.

However, Princeton has already been through the gauntlet this season, starting the season off by traveling far away from Jadwin to take on then-No. 3 UCLA, No. 20 Oklahoma, and No. 19 Indiana. They grabbed national attention by breezing past Oklahoma by 14 and scaring UCLA by taking them to the buzzer in a three-point loss. 

“If we’re fortunate to be playing in the postseason, that’s why we play those games. We want to challenge ourselves so that we’re ready for it,” Berube noted. “They’re different kinds of teams … [with] different styles of play, and really well-coached teams, and so it’s helped us in this Ivy League season.”

Madness lurks on the horizon as March arrives

The tough early tests the Tigers have faced will come in useful down the stretch this season. After they close out their final conference game against Penn, they’ll turn to Ivy Madness at Columbia. 

It certainly seems like everything is gearing up for a Princeton-Columbia Ivy League championship game in the hostile Levien Gymnasium — where the Tigers lost their only league game this year, snapping their 15-game win streak. 

“It’ll certainly be a challenge, but I think we’ll be ready for it,” Berube said.

The two teams split their regular season series, and neither has lost to another conference opponent. 

Any March Madness predictions made before the season is over should be taken with caution, but the Tigers look to be in good positioning to make the tournament due to quality wins and their Ivy League success.

ESPN’s latest bracketology projects them as a nine-seed currently — within the top 11, which typically is the cutoff for making the tournament as an at-large bid, even without a conference tournament win.

Postseason expectations are certainly high, just as they were last season, but the team is ready. 

“Our goal is to make it into the second weekend — the Sweet 16 — and I can see that happening,” Berube explained. “We’ve talked about the student-athletes that we have and the support that we have here. We can keep this thing rolling and taking the program to new heights.” 

But just how high will they go? March will tell all.

Tate Hutchins is an associate Sports editor for the ‘Prince.’

Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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