Season ends for No. 10 Princeton women at Utah in NCAA Tournament second round

 The No. 10 Princeton women’s basketball team ran out of steam against No. 2 Utah, which beat the Tigers Sunday night, 63-56, in a second-round NCAA Tournament matchup at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.

The loss brought an end to another outstanding and history-making season for the Princeton women, who finished the season 24-6.  By winning their first-round contest against No. 7 North Carolina State on Friday, the Tigers became the first program in Ivy League history to win games in back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.

The Tigers couldn’t quite muster sufficient firepower to overcome a very large, physical and talented Utes squad.  

It didn’t help that Princeton had to play the regular season co-champion of the Pac-12 Conference on its home court in front of thousands of partisan fans. Princeton coach Carla Berube refused to blame the loss on Utah’s home court advantage. 

“I don’t think that was the reason we lost the game,” Berube said in her postgame press conference.  “A great crowd energizes you. It’s great for the game.” 

For Utah’s part, head coach Lynne Roberts acknowledged that the home court gave her team an advantage, noting Utah’s perfect 15-0 record at home this season.

The Tigers started the game in good shape, grabbing an early 8-7 lead off a runout layup by Madison St. Rose.  The Ivy League Rookie of the Year looked primed for a breakout performance, but the transition basket turned out to be the only points of the game (and weekend) for the New Jersey native.  

Early on Utah succeeded in pounding the ball inside to Alissa Pili, an indomitable 6-2 forward from Anchorage, Alaska, who led all scorers with 28 points.  The Pac-12 Player of the Year and second-team All-American scored early and often in the paint, staking the Utes to a 20-12 lead at the end of the first stanza.

In the second quarter, the Tigers struggled to make shots as Utah extended its lead.  With 7:54 to go in the first half, Pili drove the lane and collided with Princeton’s Ellie Mitchell.  As the Alaska native fell to the floor, she underhanded the ball into the air, off the glass, and through the hoop, pushing Utah’s lead to 27-14.  

A 5-0 run by the Tigers to close out the half narrowed Utah’s lead to nine, 35-26. The Tigers finally caught a break when during the intermission the officials conducted a video review and concluded that a three-point basket credited earlier to Utah had been attempted after the shot clock had expired. The review erased three points from Utah’s ledger and suddenly Princeton was down only six, 32-26, to start the second half.

Berube said she and her coaching staff talked to her players in the locker room during intermission about how they had to fight harder for offensive rebounds in order to give themselves more second half scoring opportunities.  The pep talk worked as Princeton outrebounded the Utes by nine in the third quarter. The Tigers, though, couldn’t convert the second chances into enough points, outscoring Utah by only 16-14 in the third quarter.

Still, as the fourth quarter began, the game was right there for the taking by the Tigers.  A three-point swish by Grace Stone (better known these days as Stone Cold Grace) brought the Tigers to within two, 50-48, with seven minutes to play in the game. But the Tigers would get no closer.  

The key sequence of the game occurred when Mitchell blocked a layup attempt by Utah’s Issy Palmer with 6:49 to go.  Down by two and with possession, Ivy Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen went for the juggler and launched a three-point shot for the lead.  The ball bounced around and then off the rim, a fitting symbol of Princeton’s shooting futility throughout the contest.  

The Tigers would not score another field goal until Chen hit a too-little, too-late layup with 1:10 left in the fourth quarter. Utah converted 12 of 16 free throw attempts down the stretch to put the game away, 63-56.  

After the game, both coaches paid tribute to Princeton’s toughness. 

“It wasn’t our defense tonight,” Berube explained. “We just didn’t make shots.” 

Indeed, the Tigers shot 20-for-72 from the field for 27.8%, including a woeful 5-for-26 from three-point range.  

Was it tired legs or Utah’s stingy defense that denied the Tigers an opportunity to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history?  Berube wasn’t sure, but it was probably a combination of both.  Too many times, Utah’s defense forced the Tigers into off-balance attempts, with predictably bad results.   

The loss brings to an end the Princeton careers of seniors Stone, Julia Cunningham, Maggie Connolly, Kira Emsbo and Lexi Weger, all of whom took a year off from basketball during the COVID pandemic so they could return for a fifth year of eligibility at Princeton.  

Berube was emotional and effusive when asked to reflect on her graduating players. 

“Our seniors have been incredible, Berube said. “They have been amazing for me and my staff.  We’ll miss them so much.”  

The legacy this sensational senior class leaves behind is hard to describe in words.  Fortunately, there are banners hanging in Jadwin Gym to tell their story for eternity: Three Ivy League regular-season titles, two Ivy League Tournament championships and three NCAA tournament appearances, including two upsets wins over power-five opponents.  

Although the Princeton women’s season now comes to a close, the future looks bright for Berube and the program. Chen, who blossomed this season into a genuine superstar, will be back next season for her final Ivy campaign, and Mitchell, who won her second consecutive honor as the Ivy Defensive Player of the Year, is a junior and will have another season to refine her game playing in orange and black before she heads to the WNBA. Also returning will be St. Rose, who made great strides during her rookie season and should soon be making a bid for Ivy Player of the Year honors.  

Wrapping up her comments at the postgame presser, Berube reflected that “good things are happening at Princeton. Princeton basketball is on the map.” 

The former national champion, professional player, and two-time Ivy Coach of the Year is too modest. Princeton basketball is more than on the map. It’s become a national power respected by every coach and player in the country. 

Princeton’s women will be back in eight months ready to make more history. Bank on it.

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