SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — As the buzzer rang out on Princeton’s 64-36 win Friday night, junior forward Ellie Mitchell leaped into the air and spiked the ball down before rushing into a flood of her teammates. It was the culmination of a defensive performance for the ages — and one that helped to decide the Tigers’ fate in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Despite a steady 50% shooting performance through the first half, the Tigers would go on to make just nine shots in the second half, on 41 attempts. As shocking as that number might sound, however, it’s a hurdle Princeton has faced before: All of the games it’s won by less than double digits included at least two quarters in which the Tigers shot below 40% as a team.
“We’ve gone through stretches where we’ve struggled to score, and we know that our defense is going to keep us engaged,” senior guard Grace Stone said after Friday’s win. “I think throughout that whole entire period, we’re missing shots we normally make, but they were good shots.”
“We have confidence in one another to make shots,” she added. “I know that we can get shots when we need to, it’s just a matter of keep shooting, keep executing.”
But N.C. State presented an additional challenge: The Wolfpack continued to run the floor late in the game, using Princeton’s turnovers to keep the Tigers at bay. As the clock signaled six minutes left to play, N.C. State point guard Aziaha James stunned the crowd with back-to-back coast-to-coast layups, putting Princeton back by eight as the Tigers called timeout.
It was at that point that Princeton would begin a complete defensive takeover: For the last 5:44, the Wolfpack would not score, and would take just five shots. It seemed as if the Tigers were everywhere, grabbing eight rebounds and four key steals, and forcing five N.C. State turnovers (while committing zero of their own) in the final stretch of play.
The Tigers, who challenged Indiana for a spot in the Sweet 16 last year, will have another shot to advance on Sunday when they take on Utah on their home floor. The game tips off at 7 p.m. ET and will broadcast on ESPN2.
Like last year, the Tigers will have to contend with one of the most intense crowds in women’s basketball. But Berube says she and her players are ready for it.
At Indiana’s Assembly Hall, “it was crazy, but it was such a great atmosphere,” she said. “I love just being able to get on the court, and if we can silence an away crowd that’s really fun too.”
Berube also compared the matchup with Utah to games they played against Columbia; like the Lions, the Utes are a high-flying offensive team — they run the floor, push pace, and are top-15 in 3-point percentage for teams shooting more than 20 threes per game. USC transfer and All-American Alissa Pili anchors their post play, putting up 33 points, 8 assists and 8 rebounds in Utah’s opening game against Gardner-Webb.
For the Tigers, it will have to be a balanced attack on all sides, and they’ll certainly hope for a better shooting performance in the second half than during Friday’s game. Slowing down the Utes and containing Pili will be one of the Princeton’s biggest defensive challenges to date — but it’s not one they’re shying away from.
“We’ve just got to work really hard, but I love my team. Ellie Mitchell is somebody that’s different than maybe what the Pac-12 has,” Berube said. “It’s a defensive effort from all five, not just one on one inside. We’ve got to have great closeouts, have [our] high hands so they don’t get good looks at the three — just working together to take away their strengths.”
For Berube, having a defensively minded team was never a question: “When I was a player, I wasn’t going to see the court unless I could really defend well,” she told media on Saturday. “I’ve just always taken it to heart and felt like you can separate yourself if you can really defend well, if you can have all five working together on the same page.”
Defense ultimately converted into offense in the N.C. State game, opening up 12 shot opportunities for the Tigers — only three of which would snap through the net. The first was a second-chance 3-pointer from Stone, which she sank off of a critical offensive rebound from Mitchell. The second came after Mitchell grabbed the ball right from the hands of Mimi Collins, who led N.C. State in scoring, tying up the ball and securing another offensive possession for the Tigers.
On the next play, Stone and Mitchell set screens for Cunningham, who drove inside — she brought two more Wolfpack defenders with her, leaving junior guard Kaitlyn Chen wide open behind the arc. Chen’s three pulled Princeton within two, but it was a clutch steal along the baseline from first-year guard Madison St. Rose on the next possession that would make their comeback dreams a reality.
“She’s had to learn and adapt, and take our criticism and teaching,” Stone said of St. Rose after the game. “We needed that stop at the end, it was the biggest stop of the game … . She’s a testament to just putting your head down and grinding as a freshman.”
But as a layup from Cunningham on the next possession was just slightly off, the Tigers were forced to foul. As N.C. State set up their final out-of-bounds play, its fans began a cross-court “Wolf–Pack” chant that rang across every corner of the arena. But Princeton was undeterred: With Cunningham guarding the inbounder, the first pass had to go over her arms — and right into the hands of Stone.
With 12 seconds to go, the Tigers set up a play that would eventually get their top three-point shooter, Stone, who had sunk four threes to that point, the wide-open look she needed.
As Chen moved the ball over to the right side of the court, St. Rose screened off two-defenders, leaving Stone poised for the three point shot without a defender to stop her. The ball left her hands and snapped clean through the net — about as perfect of a shot as it gets.
The loyal contingency of Princeton fans leapt to their feet, joining the Princeton bench, who flooded onto the court, in cheers and screams as the Tigers took a two-point lead.
“It all happened so fast,” Celia Buchband ’22, who was in the stands with the Princeton crowd, told PAW. “I really thought it was over for us in the fourth quarter — I can’t believe I saw it live.”
The win was women’s basketball’s second consecutive victory in the Round of 64. Together with the men’s team defeating Arizona on Thursday, Princeton became the first Ivy League league school to post wins in both tournaments.
“It takes a lot to be an Ivy League student athlete, and we have a lot of sacrifices that we have to make that a lot of people don’t realize,” Stone told media on Saturday. “For both programs to be successful at this level, just shows the hard work and dedication of the players, the coaches, the staff, the administration, everyone that comes out of Princeton.”
Isabel Rodrigues ’23, a sports writer for The Daily Princetonian, is covering the NCAA Tournament games in Salt Lake City, Utah.