For the second time in 24 hours, the No. 25 Princeton Tigers fought off a fierce challenge from an Ivy foe, defeating the Brown Bears, 76-63, on Saturday night at Jadwin Gymnasium.
Although the Tigers (17-3, 7-0 Ivy) never trailed in this game, they struggled to pull away from a resilient Brown squad that has been one of the surprise teams in the Ivy League so far this season.
The Tigers jumped out to an early 12-5 lead behind balanced scoring from all five starters. Madison St. Rose got the Tigers on the board first with a putback off a miss by Ellie Mitchell. The super sophomore from Old Bridge, N.J. had a rough outing against Yale on Friday night, so she likely felt relieved to see her first shot of the game, a turnaround jumper in the paint, find the bottom of the net. St. Rose finished the game with 18 points, three rebounds and two assists.
Trailing by seven early, Brown responded. A layup by senior guard Kyla Jones followed by a three-pointer by junior guard Isabella Mauricio cut the Princeton lead to 12-10. Mauricio’s trey was one of 11 three-pointers on the evening for the Bears who used the long ball to keep the game close.
But while Brown launched threes, Princeton hauled in rebounds, 41 in total, including 11 by senior co-captain Ellie Mitchell. The Tigers led 20-12 at the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Princeton delivered a flurry of blows, first with a corner three by St. Rose, followed by another corner trey by Kaitlyn Chen, and then a highlight reel, old-fashioned three-point play by Chet Nweke.
Making her fourth consecutive start, Nweke picked sophomore guard Grace Arnolie’s pocket but struggled to keep her balance as she streaked up court for a fastbreak. On the brink of losing control, Nweke managed to save the ball from going out of bounds; a moment later, the ball came back to the senior forward, who got the hoop and the harm. Nweke converted the and-one free throw and suddenly the Tigers led 29-12. The Tigers had the Bears on the ropes.
Once again, Bruno would respond by using the three-ball. Back-to-back treys by Arnolie and Olivia Young sparked an 8-0 run by the visitors. A frustrated Carla Berube called timeout with 5:52 to go in the first half.
Out of the timeout, it was time for the Kaitlyn Chen show. The reigning Ivy League Player of the Year elevated in the paint to swish a mid-range jumper. She then stole the ball from senior guard Grace Kirk and drove the distance for a layup to put Princeton back in control, 36-23.
Chen finished with 17 points on 8-for-15 shooting, six rebounds, four assists and two steals. Her weekend totals, including Friday night’s tilt against Yale, will surely gain the attention of Ivy League officials when they announce weekly awards on Monday: 44 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and three steals for Princeton’s floor general and co-captain.
A three-pointer by Mauricio with 13 seconds left in the half allowed Brown to go to the locker room with some hope even though they trailed 40-26. Although the Tigers had dominated the first half, they had not been able to deliver a knockout punch.
The second half began with a 7-2 run by Brown, highlighted by another trey by Olivia Young. The freshman guard from Durham, N.C scored a career-high 16 points on 6-for-12 shooting, including 4-for-9 from behind the arc.
But Princeton’s balanced scoring and front court dominance kept the Bears in check. With three minutes to go in the third quarter, Ellie Mitchell put on a rebounding display for the ages. It began when Skye Belker couldn’t get a layup to go. Mitchell grabbed the rebound and found Ashley Chea on the perimeter. Chea let loose a trey but it missed. Mitchell grabbed the rebound and found Chea for a second chance, but the freshman missed again. Mitchell grabbed her third consecutive offensive board and found Chen, who converted a mid-range jumper on Princeton’s fourth chance.
Chen’s jumper gave Princeton a 55-38 lead, but Brown refused to yield. Back-to-back treys by Arnolie and Kirk trimmed the Tigers lead to 11. Arnolie finished with a game-high 19 points on 6-for-14 shooting, including 3-for-7 from distance. The third quarter ended nearly as it had begun, with the Tigers holding a 15-point lead, 59-44.
The fourth quarter played out much like the other three quarters, with both teams punching and counter-punching. Brown registered the first four points of the stanza with some rugged interior play that netted a Young layup and two free throws by Arnolie. Skye Belker rebounded her own miss and worked in the paint to draw a foul. She made both free throws and then canned a mid-range jumper to keep the Tigers ahead by double-digits, 65-41, with 5:54 to play. The freshman guard from Los Angeles deposited 11 points on the night on 3-for-8 shooting, including 4-for-4 from the charity stripe.
Brown continued to respond, this time with two layups by Arnolie, whose tally with three minutes to play shaved Princeton’s lead to 74-62. But Bruno would get no closer. A long pass from St. Rose found a streaking Nweke for a layup and finally Princeton had tamed the Bears. A competitive clash ended with Princeton’s 12th consecutive win, 76-63.
Nweke’s layup gave her a career and team high 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting to go along with seven rebounds. The senior from Woodbine, Md. was named the Player of the Game for the second time in Princeton’s last four outings.
Interviewed after the game by the ESPN+ broadcasting crew, Nweke described her technique for scoring over bigger defenders.
“I’m like 5-11 so it’s kind of hard for me to get shots over post players,” Nweke said. “I try to make contact early and get my shot off.”
Nweke has been a revelation since Berube made the decision to insert her into the starting lineup for the Columbia game two weeks ago. She had added poise, experience, athleticism and physicality to a Princeton offense that increasingly seems determined to score points in the paint instead of from the perimeter.
For Princeton, the triumph over Brown completed an extremely successful, four-game home stand that began with a 15-point win over rival Columbia and included double-digit wins over Cornell, Yale and Brown. During that stretch, the Tigers improved their NET ranking from the mid-40s to the mid-30s and reentered the national conversation with a top-25 ranking.
Despite these good tidings, stiff challenges loom ahead for Berube’s squad. The Tigers will now embark on a four-game road trip, beginning with a Saturday matchup against Penn for the first time this season and ending with a rematch against Columbia in what promises to be the game of the year in the Ivy League regular season.
And although the Tigers seem to have found a rhythm on offense, they continue to struggle at times on defense, at least compared to the lofty standards set by their head coach. The fact that Brown was able to convert 11 of 23 three-pointers against Princeton (or 47.8%) is a cause for concern. On Friday night, Yale exploited Princeton’s interior defense repeatedly with effective backdoor cuts.
Meanwhile, despite losing back-to-back games for the first time during the Ivy campaign, the Brown Bears are still positioned to snatch a berth in Ivy Madness. At 4-3 in Ivy play, Brown sits in fourth place, one game ahead of the Penn Quakers (11-9, 3-4) who bowed to Yale on Saturday night at the Palestra. Coach Monique LeBlanc has pieced together a nice blend of players in Providence, but the Bears will have to run a gauntlet of upcoming games against the top end of the conference with a road tilt at Columbia next Saturday, followed by a home rematch with Princeton and then games against Penn, Harvard and Columbia.
The key game in that sequence will be a home rematch against Penn on Feb. 17. If the Bears can hold serve against a Quakers team that will be completing a weekend back-to-back road trip, they have an excellent chance of securing their first ticket to the Ivy League Tournament since 2017.