SALT LAKE CITY (AP)Princeton is traveling on a familiar road.
For a second straight season, the 10th seeded Tigers are in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a double-digit seed. When Princeton faces second-seeded Utah in Salt Lake City on Sunday, a shot at reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history is on the line.
Some things changed for Princeton (24-5) from last season to set up this year’s success. The Tigers overcame an 0-2 start in Ivy League play and navigated a tough nonconference schedule featuring losses to UConn, Texas and Villanova.
“We have had a lot of growing to do this year,” Princeton guard Grace Stone said.
The Tigers erased an eight-point deficit by holding NC State without a point over the final 5:44 in their 64-63 win over the Wolfpack in the first round. It underscored the toughness of Princeton’s defense, which allowed only 52.5 points per game in the regular season – ranking fifth nationally.
“There’s some players that just don’t really care about that end of the floor and only care about offense,” Princeton coach Carla Berube said. “But I have a group that truly cares and loves just getting stops and what it can do to offenses and players when you can frustrate them.”
Utah (26-4) underwent its own defensive evolution to earn a shot at going to the Sweet 16.
The Utes made a name for themselves with an explosive and efficient offense during the regular season season. They led the Pac-12 in scoring offense (83.5 ppg) and field goal percentage (48.5%). But Utah also held opponents to 65.9 points per game, showing a marked improvement on the defensive side of things from last season.
“The teams that make a great run in March are known for their defense as well as their offense,” Utah guard Kennady McQueen said. “You can’t just play one side and we know the importance of that.”
The Utes made getting stronger on defense an offseason focus and it has showed off in their ability to disrupt passing lanes and control the glass throughout the season.
“We worked on it a lot differently, a lot more intentionally and then, strategically, we made some changes too of how we’re going to defend,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “You got to figure out what fits your personnel and so that’s what we did.”
SECOND ROUND REDEMPTION
Both Utah and Princeton are looking to bounce back from disappointing second-round exits in last year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers fell to Indiana by one point after upsetting Kentucky in the first round. The Utes got blasted by Texas following a comfortable first-round win over Arkansas. Both schools made finishing unfinished business from last season a primary goal for this year.
“Our goal since this summer when we all came back was to make it to the Sweet 16 and fill in that empty circle in our gym,” McQueen said. “Just to have the chance and be one win away from that is a huge, huge deal.”
Utah’s Alissa Pili is not just a proficient scorer. Pili is also an underrated talent as a passer out of the post. She dished out a career-high eight assists in a 103-77 victory over Gardner-Webb on Friday. It marked the ninth game this season where Pili has tallied three or more assists in a game.
Her ability to kick out to shooters makes Pili that much harder to defend around the basket.
“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” Roberts said.
Princeton’s victory on Friday made a little bit of history for the Ivy League. It marked the first time that Ivy League teams won first-round games in both the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments in the same season.
Princeton was also responsible for the victory on the men’s side. The 15th-seeded Tigers knocked off second-seeded Arizona 59-55 in the first round of the men’s tournament on Thursday.
“I think people are starting to realize that the Ivy League can be really competitive with other bigger name schools,” Princeton guard Kaitlyn Chen said. “It’s really exciting to be able to play in a conference like that.”
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25