Princeton women’s basketball ends 2023 with surprisingly tough win at Le Moyne

It was supposed to be a tune-up game for the beginning of the Ivy League season.

But the Le Moyne Dolphins of the Northeast Conference gave the Princeton women’s basketball team all it could handle Sunday in a 66-55 win for the Tigers at Ted Grant Court in Syracuse, N.Y.

The game hung in the balance late in the third quarter when Kaitlyn Chen took the game into her hands.  Clinging to a narrow 39-37 lead, the Tigers were desperate to stop a 9-1 run by the Dolphins. Le Moyne had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead, but Chen grabbed a rebound off a missed shot and sliced her way through four defenders to lay the ball in for an and-one finish.  Princeton’s senior co-captain then swished the free throw to boost the Tigers to a 42-37 lead.  

The Dolphins would never challenge again as Princeton closed out the quarter on an 11-2 run.  Chen’s conversion was a statement play by an elite athlete who proved once again she is the most valuable player in the Ivy League and one of the top players in all of women’s college basketball.

With the win, the Tigers closed out their nonconference season with a fifth straight win and an impressive 10-3 record.  But make no mistake, this was not exactly the performance that coach Carla Berube was looking for when she scheduled a Le Moyne team ranked 310th in the women’s NET rankings.

The game started slowly for the Tigers and was tied 5-5 when Berube decided to make a wholesale substitution of her starters.  The shift change paid dividends when two freshman guards, Mari Bickley and Ashley Chea, combined for four consecutive three-point bombs.  The Tigers led 19-12 at the end of the first quarter.

Princeton’s lead, which was entirely based on Chea’s and Bickley’s shooting from distance, compensated for some very sloppy play.  The Tigers turned the ball over five times in the first stanza alone, a problem that plagued Princeton the entire game.  

The Tigers scored the first six points of the second quarter on layups, two of which were assisted by junior Amelia Osgood, a reserve guard who has played only 50 minutes of game time the entire season.  Osgood finished the game with three assists, tripling her output for the season, but left the game in the third quarter with a twisted ankle.

Trailing 25-12, Le Moyne switched to a zone, packed the paint, and dared Princeton to shoot from outside.  The Tigers obliged but went cold down the stretch as the first half ended with the Tigers holding a double-digit lead, 33-23.  Twenty-three of Princeton’s 33 points had come from its bench.

Berube decided to stick with her bench to open the second half, but Le Moyne came out firing on all cylinders, scoring on its first four possessions.  That caused Berube to reinsert her starters, but that didn’t stop the bleeding.  A three-pointer by Sierra Linnen followed by a Haedyn Roberts layup made it a one possession game, 39-37, with just over three minutes to play in the third quarter.

That’s when Chen worked her magic to break the spell.  Her old-fashioned three-point play gave the Tigers some breathing room. From there, it was the Ashley Chea show.  The freshman from Montebello, Calif. hit back-to-back treys from the corner, each a carbon copy of the other, to sink any hope the Dolphins had of pulling the upset.  Thanks to Chea, the third quarter ended largely where it started, with the Tigers ahead by double-digits, 50-39.

Princeton continued to extend its lead early in the final stanza as its defense stiffened, forcing Le Moyne into a lengthy scoring drought.  The Dolphins could muster only four points over a six-minute stretch to open the fourth quarter as Princeton built an 18-point lead, 66-48, behind a layup by sophomore Taylor Charles, her first basket of the season. Le Moyne closed the game on a 7-0 run to make the final score respectable.  

Though the Tigers persevered to win their seventh true road game of the season, Berube likely wasn’t pleased with how her team played in this contest, particularly the starting quintet. The Tigers looked sloppy for much of the day, committing a season-high 20 turnovers.  Give some credit to the Dolphins, however, who played with superior energy and guile against a much bigger and skilled Tigers squad.

For Princeton, the player of the game was Chea, who led all scorers with 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting, all from behind the arc.  Chea’s five treys sparked Princeton when they most needed a lift, initially in the first quarter after the starters had come out flat, and again late in the third quarter when Le Moyne had momentum and was threatening to pull an upset.

Interviewed after the game on the NEC Front Row platform , Le Moyne coach Mary Grimes credited Chea with being the difference-maker in the game.  “They had a kid come off the bench, Ashley Chea,” explained the coach.  “Half the time she was shooting with her eyes closed.

Another game ball should be given to Ellie Mitchell, who played like a warrior.  Mitchell grabbed a game- high nine rebounds and dished five assists, the most of any Tiger.  She also contributed seven points, including a sweet-looking long-range jumper late in the fourth quarter.  

Mitchell’s nine rebounds lifted her career total at Princeton to 963, just one short of Bella Alarie’s second-place total of 964.  At her current pace, Mitchell could eclipse Margaret Meier’s record of 1,099 career rebounds in early March before the end of the regular season.  

Mitchell fought hard all day against a very physical opponent. At one point in the fourth quarter, Mitchell was thrown to the floor and appeared to hurt her arm.  The senior co-captain shrugged off the damage and took her revenge by shutting down the Dolphins on defense in the fourth quarter.

Mari Bickley also deserves a shoutout for coming off the bench to score eight points, third-highest on the team behind Chea’s 15 and Chen’s 10 points. The freshman guard is a fearless shooter who provided a much-needed lift for her team today.  

The Tigers will return to campus to celebrate New Year’s Eve with nearly a week to prepare for another long road trip to Ithaca as Princeton opens its Ivy season on Saturday afternoon at Cornell.