No. 9 Princeton women’s basketball vs. No. 8 West Virginia – NCAA Tournament preview

Snow flurries fall upon the entrance to Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City Friday. (Photo by Steve Silverman)

IOWA CITY, Iowa – As the curtain rises on first-round games from Iowa City in the 2024 NCAA Tournament, all eyes will focus on Caitlin Clark and her No. 1 Iowa Hawkeyes.  Clark has ignited an explosion of interest in women’s college basketball with her electrifying shooting and record-breaking scoring.  

But there are three other teams competing in the Iowa City pod this weekend, including the No. 9 Princeton women’s basketball team (25-4, 15-1 Ivy), which begins play in No. 8 West Virginia Mountaineers (24-7, 13-7 Big 12).

Let’s take an in-depth look at how these two teams from vastly different places in the women’s college basketball landscape match up against each other:

Princeton comes to the Big Dance fresh off a triumphant weekend in New York City, where the Tigers vanquished Penn and Columbia en route to their fifth consecutive Ivy League Tournament championship.  Although Princeton struggled to get past Penn in the semifinals, 59-54, the Tigers dominated host Columbia in the championship game, winning 75-58 in a game the Orange and Black led from wire-to-wire.

In an exclusive telephone interview Thursday with Ivy Hoops Online, Princeton coach Carla Berube acknowledged that the win over Columbia might have been the Tigers’ most complete performance of the 2023-24 season so far. 

“That was some really great basketball we played on both ends,” Berube said. “That was probably some of the best basketball we’ve played this season and I’d love to do that again – have a complete game with our people really stepping up.”

While Princeton might be playing its best basketball of the season, West Virginia enters the NCAA Tournament looking for a reset.  After beginning the season with an impressive, 13-game winning streak, the Mountaineers have dropped four of their last six games, including a narrow loss to Kansas State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament.  At Friday’s press conference in Iowa City, first-year coach Mark Kellogg dismissed concerns about his team’s recent struggles. 

“Those are high-quality opponents, and we are right there,” Kellogg said.

At first blush, Princeton and West Virginia look like mirror images of each other.  Both programs are led by a core group of upperclassmen, and both squads rely heavily on their defense to win games.  

Princeton comes into the postseason with the No. 17 stingiest defense in the nation, yielding on average only 56 points per game.  But the Mountaineers aren’t far behind, ranking No. 41 in team defense and allowing only 57.8 points per game.  

Both teams are efficient on offense, yet neither squad relies heavily on three-point shooting. Princeton averages only five made threes per game, which ranks 251st in the country, while West Virginia averages seven made treys, good enough to rank 84th in the nation.

Despite these similarities, there are notable differences between the two squads, starting with West Virginia’s highly aggressive style of play.  The Mountaineers employ a relentless, full-court press reminiscent of Nolan Richardson’s vaunted “40 minutes of hell” that led the Arkansas men’s basketball team to a national championship in 1994.  

West Virginia’s 2-2-1 zone press has been wildly successful this season in forcing turnovers – 743 of them to be exact, or nearly 24 per game, which ranks third-best in the nation.

“We love getting out there, getting steals and pushing the ball to get easy transition points,” explained West Virginia’s star guard, JJ Quinerly at Friday’s press conference. “That’s really our identity.”  

Berube knows that for her team to be successful on Saturday, they will have to beat West Virginia’s press without turning the ball over. 

“The most important thing for us is that we have to take care of the basketball,” the Princeton coach told Ivy Hoops Online. “That’s how they score – off steals, turnovers and easy scoring opportunities. Our biggest challenge is taking care of the basketball.”

The good news for the Tigers is that they have an experienced floor general in senior co-captain Kaitlyn Chen (15.8 points and five assists per game) to lead them through this challenge. And overall, the Tigers have been effective in not turning the ball over for most of the season, averaging only 12.9 giveaways per game, which ranks 27th-best in the country. 

“It’s going to be a challenge, but we’ve been working on it all week,” Berube said. “We’ve got to be smart, disciplined and strong with the ball and not let their pressure rattle us at all.”

Offensively, West Virginia is led by Quinerly, a 5-foot-8 junior who was named to the All-Big 12 First Team this season.  Averaging 20 points per game, Quinerly ranks 26th in the nation in scoring.  Quinerly was also voted the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.  

Quinerly reminds Berube of Harvard’s Harmoni Turner, a first-team All-Ivy senior who finished second in scoring in the Ancient Eight this season. 

“She can get to her spots, she drives well and she pulls up well,” said Berube. “She hangs in the air, she’s got great body control and great scoring mentality.”  

It will fall upon Chen to take primary responsibility for guarding Quinerly, but Berube believes it will take an entire team effort to limit the junior guard from Norfolk, Va.

In the frontcourt, the Tigers match up well against West Virginia.  The Mountaineers are not a particularly big team, with Kellogg starting only one player taller than 5-foot-10.  But the Mountaineers do have some size on their bench, primarily in the form of Jayla Hemingway, a 5-foot-11 senior from Collierville, Tenn. who averages 6.2 points in 21 minutes of playing time per game.

“They have some bigs and they come off the bench, but we have ours too, so I don’t think that’s going to be a big factor,” Berube said.  “We’ll be ready for whatever they throw at us.”

So who will prevail when the Tigers and Mountaineers clash on the hardwood in the heartland?

Both teams are approaching the matchup with confidence, perhaps too much confidence in the case of West Virginia.

Asked at Friday’s press conference to describe the challenge Princeton presents, West Virginia sophomore guard Jordan Harrison provided bulletin board material.

“I don’t really think we’ll struggle much with them,” Harrison said. “I think as long as we bring our pressure that they’ll struggle with us.”

Even West Virginia’s head coach may have inadvertently committed the cardinal sin of looking past his first-round opponent when he remarked immediately after the tournament draw was released how his team was going to send Caitlin Clark home in the second round, a comment he strenuously attempted to walk back at today’s press conference.

“I promise our attention has solely been on Princeton,” Kellogg said.

I like Princeton’s chances to sneak past West Virginia in what should be one of the most entertaining clashes of the first round.  Princeton has a habit of winning big games against power opponents under Carla Berube and, unlike West Virginia, the Tigers have been laser focused on nothing other than their next game and their next opponent.

Plus, Princeton has a Kaitlyn on their side — the “other” Kaitlyn in Iowa City this weekend.   If Kaitlyn Chen, Madison St. Rose, Skye Belker, and every other player on the court for Princeton plays with the poise needed to handle West Virginia’s press, the Tigers should find their way to the second round and a matchup the country deserves to see:  Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes versus Kaitlyn Chen and the Princeton Tigers.

2 thoughts on “No. 9 Princeton women’s basketball vs. No. 8 West Virginia – NCAA Tournament preview”

  1. It seems that the WVU coaching staff and their players don’t even realize that Princeton was ranked around the Top 25 all year, have taken down a number of NCAA Tournament teams this season and have two convincing first round victories in the last two years.

    That should be good news for the Orange & Black!

  2. In truth, Kellogg has a point, though he shouldn’t have vocalized it publicly. West Virginia’s NET ranking of 21 combined with their impressive schedule and record probably should have resulted in their getting a 5 seed. Why they dropped to an 8 is a mystery. But it also provides an insight into the challenge that Princeton faces today. The Tigers aren’t playing a typical 8-seed in today’s first round matchup.

Comments are closed.