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Kentucky fends off Princeton in NCAAW First Round

The Princeton University Women’s Basketball’s Ivy League title winning season came to an close as they fell by a score of 82-77 in the first round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament to the Kentucky Wildcats in Raleigh, North Carolina on Saturday.

It was the Maci Morris and Taylor Murray show for the Wildcats in the second half after a sluggish start from the number six seed team from Lexington, Kentucky.

With Princeton’s Ivy League Player of the Year and potential WNBA Draft selection Bella Alarie dominating the paint with 20 points and 15 rebounds, the difference in the game would come down to the guard play of Kentucky, led by NCAA Player of the Year contender Maci Morris and fellow senior teammate Taylor Murray.

Morris lit up the Tigers from distance shooting 3-5 on three point baskets en route to 19 points, her highest total in nearly two months: “When I see them go in, it just gets me going,” Morris said. “It felt really good since I’d been struggling a bit the past few games.”

Morris’ teammate and senior leader Taylor Murray poured in 19 points of her own, but perhaps more importantly, also led the forefront of the full court press on Princeton’s backcourt. The Wildcats forced the Tigers into 16 turnovers, leading to 22 points compared to the eight points off turnovers for Princeton.

Despite Kentucky’s execution of coach Matthew Mitchell’s game plan, the Tigers held their own in what was a nail-biting first half of a game that saw 15 lead changes, even finding themselves with a lead as large as nine at the 8:22 mark in the second quarter. Playing in what would be their final ever game in the black and orange of a Tiger’s uniform, seniors Bella Alarie, Gabrielle Rush, and Sydney Jordan took control. The trio of seniors combined for 59 of Princeton’s 77 points, including a three point shooting clinic put on by Rush, the 5’10” guard from Hinsdale, Illinois, who dropped six shots from beyond the arc for a team high 22 points.

After falling behind right before halftime, any suggestions of fatigue or rust for Kentucky after a shocking exit in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament were quickly dissipated in the second half.

The Tigers found themselves in a heap of trouble late in the third quarter when their two post players, forward Sydney Jordan and center Bella Alarie, got into foul trouble. With the pair on the bench, the Wildcats pounced on the opportunity to regain the lead. Now able to work the ball from the inside out, Kentucky got hot from distance through a handful of threes by Rhyne Howard, including a buzzer beater at the end of the quarter by Maci Morris to push her team’s lead to nine heading into the final frame.

The Tigers would not go away in the fourth, chipping away at the Wildcat’s lead until it was as small as five.

“What you saw right there was this team in a nutshell, and the resilience of this group was on display,” Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said of her team’s performance.

Turnovers and missed shots proved to be too much for the Tigers to overcome down the stretch as Kentucky held on to advance and take on winners of the following matchup, NC State.

What’s next for the Tigers?

Princeton once again proved to be the team to beat out of the Ivy League and showed themselves to be a contender against any of the nation’s top teams. Despite all of their success leading up to the big dance, Princeton has not yet taken it to that next level–sustained winning at the tournament.

Replacing an Ivy League Player of the Year winner is usually a difficult task in itself, but now Princeton finds itself with the unique task of replacing a potential WNBA star in Bella Alarie.

With Alarie being one of three starters in the graduating class of 2019, coach Banghart will be relying heavily on the leadership of rising sophomores Carlie Littlefield and Grace Stone. Littlefield enjoyed a season of great success as the primary ball handler and Stone finished the season playing as a reliable starter known for her defense prowess.

Princeton has an uphill battle to get to the next level of elite women’s basketball programs, but under Coach Burkhart, they are never too far off.

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