The Princeton women’s basketball team nearly pulled off an upset for the ages as the Tigers fell on Friday afternoon, 77-74, to the No. 3 UCLA Bruins at Pauley Pavilion. It was Princeton’s first loss of the season.
Five days earlier, the Tigers had visited Middle Tennessee State and ended the Blue Raiders’ 49-game homecourt winning streak. On Friday afternoon, in the first game of a two-game West Coast swing, the Tigers entered the Bruins’ den at Pauley Pavilion in hunt of another statement win.
They almost got it.
The game started slowly for Princeton for the third straight time this season. The Tigers didn’t score until their sixth possession, when senior co-captain and reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen hit a trey at the 6:21 mark of the first quarter. Perhaps the Tigers could be forgiven for having some nerves given the legendary venue and their high-ranking opponent. The Bruins, on the other hand, looked comfortable on their homecourt, scoring early and often. UCLA led by nine at the end of the first quarter, 17-8.
The second quarter belonged to Princeton. The Tigers found their range and some confidence, nailing nine of 10 field goals to take the lead at halftime, 35-32. The Tigers received a huge boost with the emergence of yet another freshman standout, Mari Bickley, a 5-10 guard from Akron, Ohio. Coming off the bench, Bickley hit all three of her field goal attempts, including a trey, to tally seven points in the second stanza. Another freshman star, Los Angeles native Skye Belker, led the Tigers in scoring in the first half with nine points.
The game see-sawed in the third quarter, with UCLA getting steady support from its very athletic center Lauren Betts, a product of Grandview High School in Centennial, Colo. Princeton simply couldn’t contain the 6-7 sophomore, who led UCLA with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
Despite this adversity, the Tigers entered the final stanza tied with UCLA, 56-56. Based on past performances, you’d figure the Tigers had the Bruins right where they wanted them. The fourth quarter is typically when Princeton, whose mantra is “get stops,” shuts down its opponent to cement victory.
UCLA had other ideas. The Bruins opened the final stanza with a mid-range jumper by Charisma Obsborne to take a two-point lead. The senior guard from Moreno Valley, Calif., made two more jumpers to stake the Bruins to a 64-60 lead with just over six minutes to play. She would finish the game with 21 points, three rebounds and three assists.
The Tigers continued to answer. Coming off the bench, Mari Bickley scored on a backdoor layup to pull the Tigers to within a point, 64-63. A Bickley free throw followed by a Chen layup gave Princeton the lead, 66-64 with 3:20 left in the game.
All the Tigers needed now were some stops from their vaunted defense to secure perhaps the biggest upset in the history of Princeton women’s basketball. They couldn’t get them.
UCLA scored on its next five possessions, including an Osborne trey at the 2:26 mark to put UCLA in the lead for good. The two teams traded free throws down the stretch as UCLA survived the Princeton scare, 77-74.
In a game that had the feel of a NCAA Tournament contest, the Tigers were led by senior co-captain and reigning Ivy League MVP Kaitlyn Chen, who tallied 24 points and dished three assists. Princeton got another outstanding performance from Belker, who deposited 20 for the Tigers, while Madison St. Rose finished in double-figures for the second time this season with 15 points.
In some ways, this game was reminiscent of another basketball clash between Princeton and UCLA that involved the men’s team during the Pete Carril coaching era. No, not that game. In late December 1969, the Princeton men traveled west to face an undefeated No. 2 UCLA squad at Pauley Pavilion. The Tigers hung all night with the Bruins, then coached by the legendary John Wooden, and actually led the game 71-65 with just over three minutes to play. It took a buzzer-beating baseline jumper by Sidney Wicks to tame the Tigers, 76-75.
Princeton basketball fans long endured the pain of that near miss against UCLA in 1969, a pain that was only vanquished when the Tigers upset UCLA on an even bigger stage in the NCAA Tournament in 1996. Wouldn’t it be poetic if Carla Berube and her Tigers got a rematch against the Bruins this March in the NCAA Tournament? If for some reason that happens, look for history to re-Pete.