PRINCETON, N.J. (AP)It hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for Princeton. The Tigers lost the first two games of conference play for the first time in six years and were looking up at the rest of an Ivy League which they have dominated over the last few seasons.
The Tigers turned things around and didn’t lose in the conference again, reeling off 14 straight wins and now are back in a familiar place – the NCAA Tournament.
Kaitlyn Chen scored 21 points, Ellie Mitchell had four in the final 78 seconds and the Tigers came back from an 11-point third quarter deficit to beat Harvard 54-48 and win the Ivy League Tournament on Saturday.
“It’s full circle that we started with a loss at Harvard and finished with a big win against a really great program,” Princeton coach Carla Berube said. “We started at the bottom in late December and kept climbing. And now we’re at the peak with the regular season and the tournament (championships).”
It had been that kind of season for the Tigers (23-5), who earned a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Princeton knocked off sixth-seeded Kentucky in the first round and lost by a point to Indiana in the round of 32 last year.
“We want to be in the Sweet 16,” Chen said. “We’ll use that and hopefully push us into the next round.”
The Tigers have actually won four straight Ivy championships dating back to 2018. The league didn’t have a postseason tournament in 2020 and didn’t play in 2021 because of the coronavirus.
Trailing 48-47 with 1:18 left Mitchell hit a layup with the shot clock running down. After a off-balance runner by Harmoni Turner missed, Mitchell got the rebound and calmly sank two free throws with 37.2 seconds left. Mitchell had 10 points and 15 rebounds.
Elena Rodriguez was fouled 10 seconds later for Harvard, but she missed both free throws. Chen then missed two on the other end with 23.7 seconds left leaving the door open for the Crimson (17-11), who were trying to earn their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2007.
Harvard couldn’t take advantage though as Turner turned the ball over on a drive down the lane, throwing it out of bounds.
Madison St. Rose hit the second of two free throws to make it a two-possession game. McKenzie Forbes missed a 3-pointer on the other end and the Tigers celebrated hugging at center court to the delight of their home fans after St. Rose hit two more free throws for the final margin.
Forbes finished with 16 points to lead Harvard, which beat Columbia in overtime to advance to the title game.
Harvard trailed 18-15 after the first quarter as Chen, who was the Ivy League Player of the Year, scored 13 points for the Tigers. The Crimson got going in the second quarter outscoring Princeton 17-5, including scoring the final nine points of the half. Lola Mullaney hit a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to give Harvard its biggest lead of the half at 32-23.
The Crimson extended the lead to 42-31 with 5:56 left in the third quarter before Princeton scored the next six points and trailed 44-37 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Tigers started pressing in the fourth quarter, using a 1-2-2 that bothered Harvard. Princeton tied the game before Rodriguez hit one of two free throws with 1:18 left to give Harvard a 48-47 lead – its last.
“Their 1-2-2 bothered us, 17-4 in the fourth quarter, you don’t win championships like that.” Harvard coach Carrie Moore said. “ l thought we learned what it requires to come out of here with a win. We still have some growing up to do. These girls have worked tremendously hard to walk away a champion and it hurts not to do that.”
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