Carla Berube knew her Tigers were in for a rough ride at Seton Hall Monday night.
The Pirates, one of the beasts of the Big East, handled Princeton last year at Jadwin Gym, 70-60, on their way to 24 wins and a long run in the WNIT, reaching the championship game after dispatching Columbia in the Elite Eight.
The Tigers expect tough games every night since their nonconference foes compiled a 264-125 record a season ago.
This game required inspired defense from Princeton for 40 minutes, especially on a night when the offense, shall we say, sputtered.
Princeton shot 29% from the field, converting a paltry 5-for-21 from deep.
Not to worry with Ellie Mitchell banging the boards. The reigning Ivy Defensive Player of the Year snared a career-high 23 rebounds, including an all-important 11 on the offensive glass. The Tigers launched 71 shots to 54 for the more efficient Pirates. The game wasn’t decided until the final minute, when four straight free throws from Julia Cunningham and Maggie Connolly enabled the Tigers to hold on, 62-58.
The Pirates got off to a hot start, opening an 8-2 lead early. Three of the Tigers’ five three-pointers powered Princeton to an 11-8 lead. After one quarter, the Pirates were up, 18-17.
The Tigers (2-1) stiffened in the second period, holding the Pirates (2-1) to 10 points. The teams went into the locker room at intermission with the Tigers clinging to a 29-28 lead.
The second half began on a positive note for the Tigers. Their 9-3 run gave them the lead at 38-31.
Seton Hall never allowed the situation to get out of control, but the Tigers were up 44-40 at the quarter’s end.
In fact, the Tigers were ahead the rest of the way, but never by comfortable margins. After building an eight-point lead with 6:26 to go, the Tigers watched the Pirates close within 3. The key play for Princeton was Kaitlyn Chen’s cold-blooded 17 footer at the 1:07 mark near the end of the shot clock. Tigers up 57-52.
Both teams scored 18 points in the final stanza. Princeton won the game at the free throw line and on the boards. Princeton was 15-for-20 from the charity stripe while the Pirates managed just six makes in 9 attempts.
Ellie Mitchell’s huge night spurred the Tigers to a decisive rebounding advantage, 47-37. Chen made seven of 14 shots from the floor to lead the Tigers with 16 points. She was joined in double figures by captain Cunningham with 12.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Ellie Mitchell’s work on the glass. She has an uncanny ability to get to the ball, often beating bigger and stronger payers. Growing up with three basketball-playing brothers probably has a lot to do with that.
The Tigers are back in action at home on Wednesday against Fordham. The Rams are coming off a Sunday encounter in College Park with Abby Meyers and the Maryland Terrapins. The Rams lost but gave the Terps all they could handle. Fordham beat the Tigers last year in the Bronx, 76-67. It was a low point for Princeton in an otherwise spectacular season.