PHILADELPHIA – Bella Alarie ’20 didn’t play like a freshman all year, and she didn’t play like one in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament.
The sweet-shooting, versatile 6-foot-4 Ivy Rookie of the Year and first-team All-Ivy selection had 17 points, a career-high 16 rebounds, and three blocks to push the second-seeded Princeton women’s basketball team past third-seeded Harvard, 68-47, in the second semifinal of the tournament March 11 at the Palestra.
“I said from the beginning of the year, we’re going to find out how far heart can take you,” said Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart. “This team is gritty. They have a lot of heart. They’re still learning many things, but those things are non-negotiable through this group. I’m really proud of them.”
Princeton 68, Harvard 47
Ivy League Tournament Semifinal
The Tigers (16-12) will face top-seeded Penn, a 71-60 winner over fourth-seeded Brown, at 4 p.m. Sunday (TV: ESPNU/ESPN3; Radio: WPRB 103.3 FM) with the winner receiving the Ivy’s automatic berth into the NCAA tournament. The loser is guaranteed a WNIT bid. Harvard finished 20-8.
“Confidence and defense again will help us against Penn,” said Leslie Robinson ’18. “I think our heart and our drive will really carry us through that game.”
Robinson was every bit as important as Alarie. The unselfish forward had an impressive double-double of her own with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and six assists. Vanessa Smith ’17 and Sydney Jordan ’19 combined for 15 points before both fouled out.
“To start with Bella, 17 and 16 in her opening Ivy League tournament, that’s ridiculous,” Banghart said. “She played harder than I can really say. I’m really proud for her and happy with her. I told her I thought it was the best decision she made to be a Tiger.
“And Leslie, she deserves everything single thing she gets. She’s worked really hard. She is the heart and soul of our team. All she wants to do is win. I don’t even think she knows she has a double-double, but she’s a kid you root for. I’m really happy for her and proud of her.”
They helped Princeton sweep three straight from Harvard this year, no easy task. Unlike the first two meetings of the year, this one wasn’t that close. Princeton won in overtime and by four points in the teams’ first two meetings this season.
“I don’t think we really had any worries,” Robinson said. “We went into the game knowing we had to play Princeton basketball for four quarters and let our defense convert to our offense and have the heart that we’ve had all season. I think that’s something that we definitely carried out throughout the game and that’s what led to our success.”
Taylor Brown ’17 delivered seven assists before her first turnover came in the fourth quarter. Princeton finished with 17 assists on 22 field goals. Brown also was instrumental in hounding Harvard’s leading scorer Katie Benzan. Benzan and Harvard’s second-leading scorer Destiny Nunley were held to a combined 10 points, 15 below their average.
“We shared the ball really well,” Banghart said. “You have to go into the tournament and know that your defense is lockdown. You just get to walk with ease. You don’t have to make shots. I’ve had some really good offensive teams, and I wouldn’t put this team in that category yet, but I knew what I was going to get. I knew it was going to be a battle for them to score against us.”
Princeton held its largest lead of the game, 50-31, seconds into the fourth quarter but Harvard answered with an 11-2 run to trim the Tigers lead to 52-42 before Alarie’s layup ended the run and ignited a 12-1 Princeton stretch that put the game away.
“We let them go on a run for a second there,” Alarie said. “It all comes down to heart and playing through adversity, which we’ve done all year. Making that layup kind of reset the tone and let us finish the game strong.”
The first half featured two of the Ivy League’s stingiest defenses playing up to their reputations. Neither team shot better than 37 percent. The Tigers held Harvard to 1-for-9 shooting from 3-point range and only 23 percent shooting overall.
Princeton, which led the Ivies in field goal attempts per game, was forced into some long possessions early. “I thought we started a little slow,” Banghart said. “Then the lightbulb went off that when we trust each other we’re pretty good. It changed the game for us entirely.”
Princeton only deficit was 13-12 early in the second quarter. The Tigers closed the second quarter on a 9-0 run capped by Jackie Reyneke’s putback at the buzzer to forge a 25-16 halftime lead. The Tigers held Harvard scoreless for the final 5:14. The 16 points surrendered was the fewest they have allowed since holding Cornell to 15 points on Feb. 25.
"When we play with such intensity, it’s such a great feeling. And being in the Palestra gave us an incredible amount of energy and focus. It was one of my favorite quarters of basketball all season.”
Bella Alarie ’20
Princeton swelled its 25-16 halftime lead to 49-31 during the third quarter. Princeton scored the first four points of the third quarter before Harvard scored its first points in 6:41. Princeton came right back with a post-up by Sydney Jordan and 3-pointer by Alarie for a 34-18 lead with 7:10 left in the third quarter.
“We got a little gut check,” Robinson said. “We looked at each other and said, we’re not losing to Harvard. We said, we’re going to the championship. We worked together. We got stops on defense and that converted to our offense.”
Princeton shot 47 percent in the third quarter and made 3-of-6 3-pointers. It was one of their most complete quarters of the season.
“It’s way up there,” Alarie said. “We played just lockdown defense. That’s what converts to our offense. When we play with such intensity, it’s such a great feeling. And being in the Palestra gave us an incredible amount of energy and focus. It was one of my favorite quarters of basketball all season.”
Princeton will try to top the one team to sweep them this year when they play the tournament host Penn on Sunday. Princeton lost a 62-57 game at Jadwin Gym on Jan. 7, and then lost 52-40 on Mar. 7 at Penn in the Ivy regular-season finale.
“Penn is the Ivy champion, salute them for that, it’s hard to do,” Banghart said. “So they’ve got a lot of pressure. We’re already 0-2, so we’re either 0-3 or we’re dancing. So that’s got a nice ring to it. We need to make shots. Both teams are going to defend. I know that. It’s time for us to make shots. It’ll be fun to watch.”