Thoughts on the upcoming showdown between No. 25 Princeton and Columbia women’s basketball

The No. 25 Princeton women’s basketball team travels to New York City on Saturday to face the Columbia Lions in a marquee showdown at Levien Gymnasium at 2 p.m. Here are three thoughts on the most anticipated clash of the season so far in the Ivy League:

1.  The stakes are high for both teams.  

For Princeton (19-3, 10-0 Ivy), a win on Saturday would result in a regular season sweep of Columbia and likely would sew up a sixth consecutive Ivy League regular season title for the Tigers.  It would also likely make Princeton a lock for a berth in the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team should the Tigers fail to win the Ivy’s automatic bid at Ivy Madness next month.

For Columbia (18-5, 9-1), the stakes are also quite high. The Lions need to defend their home court to prove they can compete with Princeton and win a big game under pressure.  

Columbia hasn’t beaten Princeton at Levien since the 2007-08 season. A win would also put Columbia in position to claim at least a share of the Ivy regular season title for the second year in a row and firmly establish the women’s program in Morningside Heights as a titan within the conference alongside Princeton.

Unlike Princeton, Columbia is likely not playing on Saturday for a chance to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament.  Although the Lions certainly deserve to be strongly considered for an at-large berth (should one be needed), history suggests that Columbia’s current NET ranking of 62 makes an at-large selection unlikely.  Moreover, Columbia has come up short this season in several of its highest profile matchups, dropping contests to Duke (at Levien), Georgia, Florida, Stony Brook and Princeton. Columbia will likely need to win the Ivy League Tournament if it wants to dance on the national stage in March.  

2. The more physical team on Saturday will likely win the game

Recent history has shown that it takes superior talent and physicality to win Ivy League championships in both the men’s and women’s competitions.

When Columbia last faced Princeton on Jan. 20, the Tigers prevailed, 80-65, by exploiting the Lions’ smaller interior defense.  Princeton pounded Columbia in the paint, outscoring Megan Griffith’s squad, 54-38.  The Tigers also outrebounded the Lions, 34-24.  

For Columbia to turn the tables on Saturday, the Lions will have to find a way to contain Princeton’s sizable frontcourt, led by senior co-captain Ellie Mitchell.  Mitchell dominated the Lions at Jadwin, scoring 14 points and hauling in 15 rebounds for a double-double.  

Another post player who caused problems for the Lions the last time these two teams met was Chet Nweke.  The 6-foot senior from Woodbine, Md. earned the first start of her career against Columbia and rewarded coach Carla Berube’s decision by scoring nine points and grabbing six rebounds.  

Nweke is a hybrid guard/forward who knows how to position herself for a rebound and putback.  She plays with a lethal combination of skill and physicality, the attributes needed to win a big, emotional game like the upcoming clash on Saturday.

Berube has several “bigs” she can deploy in reserve to bolster Princeton’s interior game, including 6-foot-4 junior Parker Hill and 6-foot-4 sophomore Tabitha Amanze.  Hill has been a steady contributor for Princeton throughout the season, while Amanze has played a growing number of minutes in recent games and has imposed her will on opponents by grabbing rebounds and scoring in the paint.  

Should it be necessary, Berube can also get valuable minutes from Paige Morton, a 6-foot-3 junior forward from Summit, N.J., or Katie Thiers, a 6-foot-2 junior forward from Seattle.

Columbia doesn’t have anywhere near the size or length of Princeton.  Susie Rafiu, a 6-foot-1 forward, is probably Griffith’s best hope for containing Princeton’s inside game.  The sophomore from Ipswich, England only scored three points and retrieved two rebounds in 19 minutes against Princeton in January, but she has come on in recent contests, scoring 21 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in her last two outings against Harvard and Dartmouth, respectively.  

Columbia’s only other players measuring 6-feet or taller include Cecelia Collins, a 6-foot forward from Scranton, Pa,, and Paige Lauder, a 6-foot-1 senior from Malvern, Pa.  Collins is Columbia’s second leading scorer at 13.9 points per game, and third-leading rebounder at 4.4 boards per game.  

Columbia’s leading rebounder is its superstar guard, Abbey Hsu.  Perhaps best known for her league leading scoring (20.6 points per game), Hsu also averages more than seven rebounds per game, which is fourth-best in the Ivy League.  

For Columbia to win on Saturday, everyone will have to excel at blocking out and denying entry passes to Princeton’s post players.  Rafiu in particular may need to have a breakout game.  

Finally, foul trouble for either team could play a big role, although Columbia, with a less deep bench, seems especially vulnerable should the referees decide to call a close game.  

3. Who will be the X-factor?

The leading storyline in this game will be the matchup between each team’s superstar – Kaitlyn Chen for Princeton and Hsu for Columbia.  Both players lead their teams in scoring and both have proven time and again that they can take over a game and carry their team to victory.  

But as I see it, each of these leading contenders for Ivy League Player of the Year are likely to cancel each other out.  Instead, I believe it will be a lesser known star who will emerge as the difference-maker.  

For Princeton, it could be Ashley Chea, a fearless freshman guard with a deadly shot from outside, or Skye Belker, another uber-talented freshman who has started every game for Carla Berube this season.  Both Belker and Chea are capable three-point shooters for Princeton, which could become a decisive element of the game should Columbia choose to pack the paint and go into a zone defense.  

Madison St. Rose could also be the difference-maker.  The reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year has struggled in recent games, making just eight of 27 shots in her last three games and averaging only 6.3 points per game, well below her season average of 14.3 points per game.  If St. Rose rediscovers her shooting touch on Saturday, it’s likely to be a long day for Columbia.

For Columbia, the X-factor player could be Kitty Henderson.  The 5-foot-10 guard from Sydney tallied only four points against Princeton earlier this season, but she has come on strong in recent games, scoring 51 points in Columbia’s last five outings.  Henderson plays a gritty game, which is precisely what Columbia will need from all its starters to tame the Tigers on Saturday.