How No. 1 Princeton women’s basketball held on to defeat No. 4 Penn, 59-54, in Ivy League Tournament semifinal

NEW YORK – The No. 1 Princeton women’s basketball team withstood a furious rally by the No. 4 Penn Quakers on Friday evening to advance to the championship game of the Ivy League Tournament in a 59-54 victory.  

The Tigers entered the contest with an 11-game winning streak against their rivals from Philadelphia.  The 12th win was anything but easy.  The Tigers were led by sophomore Madison St. Rose, who tallied 19 points, all but three of them coming in the second half.

But the real hero of the game was senior co-captain Ellie Mitchell, who hauled in a game-high 12 rebounds, one more than needed to break the all-time Princeton women’s basketball record for rebounding.  Mitchell’s 12 boards pushed her career total to 1,100, one more than Margaret Meier, who had held the record at Princeton since 1978.

In the postgame press conference, Mitchell reflected that breaking the record “was really special but obviously there are bigger things, like getting the win.”

The game started slowly with both teams combining to miss their first seven shots.  The Tigers finally got on the board at the 7:48 mark of the first quarter when senior co-captain Kaitlyn Chen drove the lane and laid it in for two.  The unanimous first-team all Ivy guard contributed 18 points to the Tigers’ cause on 8-for-19 shooting.  No other Tiger reached double-digits.  

After a baseline jumper by Skye Belker pushed Princeton’s lead to 4-1, Penn’s fabulous freshman, Mataya Gayle, drilled a three-pointer to knot the game at 4-4.  Gayle, who struggled in Penn’s two previous games against Princeton this season, showcased why she was selected the Ivy Rookie of the Year.  The 5-foot-7 guard from Woodstock, Ga. scored a game high 20 points on 9-for-10 shooting, including 2-for-4 from distance.  

At the post-game press conference Penn coach Mike McLaughlin gushed over Gayle’s performance.  “She embraced the environment,” he stated.  “She was really special today.”  

Meanwhile, the turnovers began to pile up for both teams.  After Chen was called for a travel, one of six on the night for the senior, Gayle found Stina Almqvist for a perfectly executed backdoor layup to put Penn in front, 12-6.  The first quarter ended with the Quakers clinging to a one possession lead, 14-11.  

In the second quarter, Princeton quickly seized back the lead behind a nifty left-handed layup by Parker Hill, followed by a steal and drive to the hoop by senior forward Chet Nweke.  Nweke struggled with her shooting touch, scoring only six points and missing all four of her attempted free throws.  But the senior co-captain had a monster night on the boards, grabbing 10 rebounds, including a game-high seven offensive boards.

Princeton’s lead didn’t last long.  Jordan Obi, a First-Team all-Ivy guard from Hartford, Conn., hit a three after a scramble for a loose ball ended up in the senior’s hands.  Obi scored 15 points in the game on 5-for-16 shooting, including 3-for-4 from beyond the arc.  The Quakers ran to the locker room with a 30-28 lead at the intermission.

Both teams were plagued by turnovers in the first half, but Princeton’s miscues were especially harmful, leading to 17 points by the Quakers.  After the game, Princeton coach Carla Berube acknowledged that some early nerves had gotten to her team.

I think we were a little jittery,” Berube said.  “Yes, [Penn] forced a lot of turnovers, but [our players] found their way in the second half.”

In the third quarter, Madison St. Rose seized control of the game.  A long two-point jumper by the Second-Team All-Ivy guard knotted the game at 30.  A Chen jumper followed by two free St. Rose free throws gave the Tigers their first lead of the second  half.  They would never trail again.  The Tigers led 46-42 at the end of the third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Penn turned up the heat on defense.  Turning the tables on Princeton’s vaunted defense, the Quakers swarmed the Tigers on every possession forcing Princeton into a bevy of bad passes and turnovers.

Despite these adversities, the Tigers appeared to have put the game away when St. Rose sank a clutch three-pointer and then pivoted in the paint to can a mid-range jumper.  The Tigers led 57-49 with only 3:42 to play.

But Penn refused to back down. A jump shot by Obi followed by a wide open Obi trey made it one possession game, 57-54, with 52 seconds left on the clock.  Princeton called timeout.  Out of the timeout, the Tigers worked the clock before Skye Belker missed a baseline jumper, but Nweke grabbed the rebound and Berube called another timeout with only 22 ticks remaining.

The Tigers inbounded the ball to Belker who was trapped on the sideline.  Simone Sawyer, a 5-foot-11 guard from Lincolnshire, Ill., stole the ball, one of 7 steals on the night for the sophomore, and suddenly Penn was in business.   The Quakers got the ball in the hands of Obi, their superstar senior, who drove to the basket and banked it in for what appeared to be an and-one layup.  But with only 14 seconds left on the clock, the officials whistled a charge and waived off the basket.

Two late free throws by St. Rose sealed a 59-54 Princeton win. Despite their at times shaky performance, the Tigers advanced to the championship game of the Ivy League tournament for the sixth consecutive time. 

“This time of the season it’s about surviving and winning no matter what it looks like,” Berube said.  “Certainly [the game] ended not the way we drew it up, but I’ll take the responsibility for that.”

Princeton’s 59 points were its fewest since losing 60-58 to Rhode Island on Dec. 3. In the postgame press conference, Penn coach Mike McLaughlin praised his team’s efforts and noted how hard his team had fought.

I thought it was a great college basketball game and played at a very high, high level,” McLaughlin said.

Princeton’s win coupled with Columbia’s triumph over Harvard in the nightcap semifinal sets up a dream championship match on Saturday evening at Levien Gym between host Columbia and Princeton, the regular season co-champions.  After committing 21 turnovers against Penn, the Tigers know they will have to play with more poise and precision on Saturday than they did on Friday night if they hope to repeat as Ivy League Tournament champions.