NEW HAVEN, Conn.—The first two meetings this season between the Princeton women’s basketball team and archrival Penn both came down to a pivotal fourth quarter. So it was no surprise, with an NCAA bid on the line in the Ivy League Tournament championship game, that their third meeting would be decided the same way.
The No. 1-seed Tigers outscored the No. 2-seed Quakers 21-7 in the final quarter, erasing a small deficit to win 65-54 and clinch their second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“We just wanted it so badly,” Gabrielle Rush ’19 said. “That’s what we did the last time we played them — we held them to one basket in the fourth quarter. They’re a great team, and they’re very hard to stop because they’re dangerous from every part of the court. That’s just a testament to us being not just a good offensive team but also a good defensive team, and getting the stops when we needed them the most.”Bella Alarie ’20 was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. She scored a game-high 25 points on 10-15 shooting in the final, after scoring 21 in the prior day’s semifinal win over Cornell.
But it was her defense that keyed the most pivotal plays of the game. After Penn took a three-point lead into the final quarter, Alarie blocked Penn’s star forward Eleah Parker and kept the ball in play, allowing Rush to race ahead for a fast-break layup and foul that tied the game 47-47. Later in the quarter, she blocked Parker again to preserve a 51-51 tie, followed by another Rush basket that took the lead for good.
Alarie added a steal down the stretch that helped seal the victory. In her highly anticipated battle with Parker — a matchup of the only two unanimous All-Ivy honorees, the league’s Player of the Year against the Defensive Player of the Year, and two stars who wear the same No. 31 for good measure — Alarie won decisively, holding the Penn center to 10 points on 5-23 shooting and blocking her four times. She also played all 40 minutes of the game.
“Eleah Parker’s really good — she’s exceptional, and Bella is one of the few people in the country that can guard her. She doesn’t shoot from far away, so those were 23 shots that were around the paint, and [Alarie] was able to disrupt them,” Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said. “And [after the game] she started a dance party with the band, so she’s just a great example of what an Ivy League student-athlete can be, in terms of how she loves the collegiate environment.”
But Alarie needed help to send the Tigers dancing — she didn’t score in the final eight minutes. Instead, point guard Carlie Littlefield ’21 found her stride at the right time. After struggling for most of the game — as Banghart said, “She was missing for the first half” — Littlefield scored all of her 13 points in the final 13 minutes. She hit a key pull-up jumper late in the third quarter, went coast-co-coast for a layup early in the fourth, and drove for an uncontested layup to extend Princeton’s lead to three points down the stretch. Alarie then fed Julia Cunningham ’22 for a three-pointer with two minutes left, all but putting the game away.
“I told [Littefield] at halftime, ‘You’re a tough kid from Iowa — play like it!’” Banghart said. “She was huge. We were nowhere without her, so thankfully, the second half was a good half for her, and therefore for us.”
Rush finished with 18 points while Littlefield added 13. Both were named to the all-tournament team along with Cunningham, who had 10 in the semifinals.
Though Princeton and Penn had finished first and second in the league for five straight years, this was the first year they shared the conference championship, finishing with identical 12-2 records. Sunday’s final was a rubber match on several levels — not only did the two sides split this season’s regular-season meetings, but they also beat one another in the last two Ivy League Tournament finals (Penn winning in 2017, Princeton in 2018).
A back-and-forth tone was set from the beginning, with six lead changes in a high-octane first quarter. Alarie bookended the frame, scoring Princeton’s first five points and its last six, giving the Tigers a two-point lead.
The second quarter initially looked like more of the same: Alaire scored four straight points to extend the Tigers’ margin. But then Penn’s foreboding defense showed its teeth, holding Princeton scoreless for a six-minute stretch. The Quakers’ 14-2 run gave them a six-point lead, though the Tigers’ late rally cut the deficit to 31-30 at halftime. (Alarie scored 17 of her team’s 30 first-half points.)
Penn extended its lead to as many as seven points in the third quarter, with guards Ashley Russell and Kendal Grasela doing most of the damage by driving off of ballscreens. But Princeton changed its defense down the stretch to guard the ballhandler more aggressively, holding the Quakers to only one made field goal in the fourth quarter.
Princeton will learn its first-round opponent when the NCAA Tournament brackets are revealed at 7 p.m. Monday. Last year, as a No. 12-seed, the Tigers lost to No. 5-seed Maryland in the first round, 77-57.
Regardless of the outcome, a trip to the Big Dance will be a rewarding culmination of a season that had quite a few ups and downs. Princeton lost seven of its first eight games against tough competition with Alarie injured, it continued to battle injuries for most of the season, and it started Ivy League play 2-2 before kicking off a 12-game win streak that continued Sunday.
“I can’t say enough about what this team has gone through. I’ve got only two guys that wore a uniform every game this year, and they happened to be the captains. Everybody else missed at least one, often more,” Banghart said. “Today you saw the competitiveness of this group.”