The No. 11 seed Princeton women’s basketball team gave No. 6 seed (and national No. 17) Kentucky all it could handle but came up just short in its first-round game at the Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C.
The Tigers were up by as many as nine points in the second quarter and up four at the half, but a 28-15 third quarter propelled the Wildcats into the lead and gave them enough of a cushion to withstand a late Tigers rally to claim the first-round victory.
Despite two-time Ivy Player of the Year Bella Alarie having a monster stat line of 20 points, 15 rebounds (six offensive) and five assists, the Tigers were led by their senior co-captains, Gabrielle Rush and Sydney Jordan. Rush, who averaged 15 points and shot a combined 8-for-13 from three in last weekend’s Ivy Madness, finished the day with 22 points and a 6-for-11 performance from three. Jordan, the university’s Pyne Prize winner, had a career-high 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting and five rebounds (four offensive).
With the game knotted at 12 at the three-minute mark of the opening frame, Alarie picked up her second foul and headed to the bench less than a minute later. The Tigers rose to the challenge, finishing the quarter on an 8-4 run to end the first 10 minutes up 20-14. Rush and Jordan combined for 16 of the team’s 20 points, while the defense outrebounded Kentucky 11-6 and limited the Wildcats to 39 percent shooting.
A Rush three at the 8:21 mark of the second quarter gave Princeton a 27-18 lead, but Kentucky battled back with a 13-2 run to go ahead 31-29 with 3:45 left in the half. The Tigers regrouped with their own 8-2 run to give them the 37-33 lead at the half.
After two quarters, Princeton dominated the inside with 61 percent shooting from two and a +8 total/+24 percent advantage on the glass, which offset its nine turnovers against the Wildcats’ pressure defense. Jordan and Rush ended the half in double figures with 11 and 10 points, respectively. Alarie notched six points on 3-for-8 shooting, but she grabbed nine boards and dished out four assists. In addition to the turnovers, the pesky Kentucky defense was getting Princeton into foul trouble with Jordan, Stone and Alarie picking up two fouls each.
Kentucky started to warm up in the second quarter, using a 45 percent two-point performance to increase its overall shooting to 47 percent for the half. The Wildcats did not have any double-digit scorers, but they did have a balanced attack with eight different players getting on the scoreboard.
The game went back and forth in the early part of the second half with six lead changes in the third quarter when Rush hit her fourth three of the day to give Princeton a 50-48 lead. The trey was Rush’s 91st of the year, giving her the school’s single season record.
Unfortunately, that would be the last lead of the day for Princeton, as Kentucky took control of the game with a 13-2 run over the last three minutes of the quarter.
The Tigers shot 50 percent in the third frame, but the Wildcats shot 62 percent from the field and 80 percent (8-for-10) from the line. First-team All-SEC guard Maci Morris, who hit a buzzer-beating three to end the decisive run, scored 11 points in the third quarter, while fellow senior fellow senior Taylor Murray added eight points. The team also outrebounded Princeton for the first time all game (7-5) and kept the Orange & Black off the offensive glass.
Following a contested Rhyne Howard scoop shot that made it 69-60, Murray stole Alarie’s inbounds pass and hit a layup to make it an 11-point game with only 5:30 left in regulation. Just when things looked over for Princeton, Rush, Jordan and Alarie each scored to lead the Tigers on a 8-2 run over the next two minutes to make it 73-68. After Alarie’s and-one free throw, Howard, the ESPNW Freshman of the Year, calmly sank a three from the left key to effectively end the game.
After both teams went scoreless over the next two and a half minutes, Carlie Littlefield, Taylor Baur and Alarie combined for four more baskets over the game’s last 35 seconds, but the Wildcats hit all six of their free throws to keep the Tigers at bay.
The victorious Wildcats finished the day shooting 50 percent from two, 50 percent from three (9-for-18) and 73 percent (19-for-26) from the line with four players in double figures. Morris and Murray had 19 points each, shooting a combined 13-for-24 from the field, 5-for-8 from three and 7-for-8 from the free throw line. Howard had 15 and Tatyana Watt scored 12 points on a perfect 4-for-4 from the field and 4-for-4 from the charity stripe.
The Tigers ended up shooting 51 percent from two, 37 percent (7-for-19) from three and 77 percent (10-for-13) from the free throw line. They also had a balanced scoring attack with Littlefield’s 10 points joining Rush, Alarie and Jordan.
To grab the upset, Princeton needed offensive production from their starters, while taking advantage of its inside strength and holding onto the ball against one of the most tenacious defenses in the land. The Tigers certainly put up points and had their way on the glass, but they struggled in the other two areas.
Princeton had 12 more boards with a 40 percent offensive rebounding rate and 81 percent defensive rate, but they only had an 11-9 advantage in second-chance points. Much of that was due to Alarie, who only made eight of 20 two-point baskets (8-for-24 for the game) on the day. She also had difficulty holding onto the ball, committing four of the teams 16 turnovers, which led to 22 Wildcat points.
Despite the loss, the team’s first in its last 13 games, the Tigers showed much improvement over last season’s 77-57 first-round defeat as a No. 12 seed to No. 5 Maryland. Missing all of Princeton’s nonconference games, including several contests against Power Five competition, may have prevented Alarie from the experience needed to battle against Top-20 competition. Courtney Banghart’s squad now loses Rush and Jordan (and Qalea Ismail) to graduation, but another year of growth for the team, a healthier season for Alarie and the return of Abby Meyers should make Princeton a favorite for the 2020 Ivy crown and a threat to make some noise in next year’s Big Dance.