The small contingent of Princeton fans who came to Bloomington, Indiana, last Saturday collectively held their breath as sophomore guard Kaitlyn Chen sank two free throws with just 37 seconds remaining.
Suddenly the Tigers had a nearly insurmountable lead — 64-57 — in their first game of the NCAA tournament. Kentucky star Rhyne Howard, a top WNBA draft prospect, made a final attempt to close the gap, putting up a near-miss three-pointer in the final seconds, but the Tigers still grabbed their second-ever win in March Madness. The team sprinted to center court as the buzzer sounded, cheers raining down like confetti.
The win is just the third time an Ivy League team has advanced to the second round of March Madness: The first was when Harvard upset Stanford in 1998, and the second when Princeton beat Green Bay to advance in 2015.
“We all grow up dreaming about playing on this stage in Division I basketball,” said senior guard Abby Meyers, who led all scorers with a career-high 29 points. “To finally be here after a year and half, two years, some of us [for] the first time, it’s a special moment.”
Two nights later, the Tigers very nearly won their second game, but fell to Indiana in the final moments, 56-55. Even so, the season has been a massive success. Meyers finished with an honorable mention to the AP’s All-American team, and Princeton just nearly swept the Ivy League conference awards.
“It’s honestly just been so much fun playing with this team,” said Chen, who’s in her first season with the Tigers.
After beating Harvard and then Columbia in Ivy Madness, the Tigers began their March Madness journey against the Wildcats with stumbles on the offensive end; turnovers plagued their offense as they adjusted to playing at Kentucky’s pace. However, Meyers’ scoring strength, strong drives to the basket from junior guard Grace Stone, and sophomore forward Ellie Mitchell’s fearlessness as a rebounder kept the Tigers just ahead.
By halftime, the Tigers had already registered just one turnover under their season average, causing them to give up points in transition. Yet, despite this, the Princeton defense was effective in the half court, significantly limiting Kentucky’s scoring options and preventing the Wildcats from making a scoring run. As the first half came to a close, the Tigers finally had a fast-break opportunity of their own: Chen pushed the ball ahead, but snuck a nimble pass to Mitchell behind her, faking out the Kentucky defense for an easy layup. Howard sunk a confident three-pointer with just seconds left, leaving the score at 32-26 at the end of the half.
Though the Tigers held onto the lead throughout the third quarter, fouls and turnovers allowed Kentucky to inch within striking distance, coming as close as 38–36. However, a wide-open three-pointer from junior guard Julia Cunningham gave Princeton some much-needed momentum. The energy had begun to shift as Meyers and Chen bounced off one another, creating havoc for a struggling Kentucky defense and contributing to their seven-point win.
In the second round, the Tigers were set to play the region-hosts, the third-seeded Indiana Hoosiers. Though the Tigers got out to a quick start, Meyers and Chen quickly found themselves in foul trouble, and junior guard Maggie Connolly entered the game in Meyers’ stead.
The combination of a tough Indiana defense, led by guard Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, and relentless offense from guard Grace Berger, caused the Princeton squad to stumble. By halftime, the Tigers were down by 10, and had given up 39 points already, uncharacteristic of the Princeton defensive which typically keeps opponents to an average of 50 points or less.
After the game, Cunningham spoke about the team’s energy coming out of half-time. “We came out of the halftime room, we always write 0-0 on the board no matter what the score is,” she said. “We came out ready to play.”
As the third quarter began, the Princeton defense was back in full swing, allowing just six Hoosier points in the third quarter, while the team battled on the offensive end to make it a one-possession game. Key rebounds from Mitchell gave the Tigers extra opportunities to score, while a scoring run led by Stone and Chen capitalized when the Hoosier defense faltered.
“That’s a Big Ten team that can score the ball, and holding them to six points in a quarter is big for us,” Cunningham later said.
Unfortunately, the Hoosiers showed their offensive strength in the fourth quarter, flexing their impressive field goal accuracy and reasserting themselves on the defensive end. With a tied scoreboard, 52-52, and 58 seconds remaining, however, there was still a chance for Princeton to emerge victorious.
Tensions were high as the Tigers came out of a timeout, attempting to pull ahead for one final time. Using a screen from Mitchell, Meyers got herself open for three, just as she had many times throughout the season. Unfortunately, this time her shot was just short, and Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes tore down the rebound as Indiana called a timeout of their own.
The Hoosiers re-entered the game with force, as Berger, who led all players in scoring, barreled past Chen towards the paint, the Tigers struggling to close the gap she had found in their defensive set. Berger finished her strike with an acrobatic layup right over Mitchell, giving Indiana a two-point lead with 31 seconds left.
Princeton took a timeout to regroup and advance the ball to halfcourt. This time, the Tigers looked to Chen to handle the ball, with Meyers setting up for a back-up outlet pass. She dribbled at the top of the key, waiting for the right moment as the seconds wound down, until Mitchell shot forward for a screen on Chen’s defender, giving her a path to the basket. However, the Hoosier defense quickly collapsed, and Chen found herself in mid-air, looking for an overhead pass to Meyers who was, by that point, open for three. The pass was intercepted by Indiana’s Ali Patberg, and Princeton was forced to foul to prevent the Hoosiers from taking another fast break.
As the final seconds of the game ticked over, the Tigers used their remaining two fouls to slow Indiana’s pace, eventually sending guard Aleksa Gulbe, Indiana’s best free throw shooter to the line as they entered the bonus. Gulbe sunk her two shots, and Princeton quickly called timeout, pushing the Tigers to half-court for a final shot attempt with just 1.6 seconds remaining.
Cunningham found Meyers on the inbound, wide open for a final, bittersweet, three-pointer. As Meyers’ final shot with the Tigers rattled in, the buzzer sounded, the final score resting at 56-55 in favor of Indiana.
“I think we made some people aware of what we’re able to do — beat the SEC champs, and then come in and have a one-point game with the Big Ten runner-up,” Cunningham said after the game. “For the Ivy League it’s huge. For Princeton it’s huge.”
And the future appears bright for the Princeton squad. Meyers and senior guard Neenah Young will be the only two departures from the current roster next season. For the younger players, a drive for the spotlight will be key, said coach Carla Berube: “They’re going to be really hungry to get back to games like this.”