How did Princeton reach the Top 25? Alarie, Berube weigh in

Princeton rides new-found defensive focus to a historic start, into the new year, and into Ivy League play

Anytime there is a change to a program as significant as the hiring of not just a new head coach, but an entirely new staff, there could be a sense of uneasiness among both fans and players alike. Thankfully for the Princeton Tigers, the transition to Carla Berube and her staff has been a seamless one.

Berube is joined by assistants Dalila Eshe, Lauren Battista, and Lauren Dillon, as well as director of operations Helen Tau–all are entirely new to the Princeton women’s basketball program. While the entire staff may be new, their new head coach comes with quite a resume.

Berube, who played for four years under Geno Auriemma at UConn, winning the 1995 national championship, had spent the last 17 years as the head coach at Tufts, a program that she turned into a division three perennial powerhouse. Berube stepped into the head coaching position at Princeton, not having to build the program up, but to cultivate it and bring it to new heights.

University of Connecticut basketball player Carla Berube lines up a free throw at the foul line during the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, Storrs, Connecticut, 1994. (Photo by Bob Stowell/Getty Images)

Princeton and Berube have done just that so far, as they are off to a 12-1 start, while being ranked in the AP top-25 for the first time in five years. They also find themselves ranked in the CBS Sports top-25.

As any head coach will tell you, if you want to win or continue to win, you need really good players. On Berube’s first day, she would be stepping into a situation where she would be coaching one of the country’s best in senior Bella Alarie. Alarie, who is projected to be a top pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft, is the two-time Ivy League Player of the Year. Berube knew what she had in Alarie really quickly. “She has such a tremendous skill set,” Berube told High Post Hoops. “She’s a guard in a 6’4 body, a really good passer and decision maker, and is shooting the three really well.”

In regards to how Alarie helped Berube make the transition, coach emphasized what a critical role her senior co-captain played. “She (Alarie) has been so important in my transition to Princeton. I wish she was a freshman, so I could coach her longer.. She’s such a great leader”

While Alarie may be the star of this Tigers team, fellow co-captain Taylor Baur has been extremely impressive so far this season. While Baur is fourth on the team in scoring at 7.5 PPG, behind Alarie, Julia Cunningham, and Carlie Littlefield, she is third in rebounds at 5.2 RPG, and second in blocks at 15.  For Berube, it’s her work ethic and leadership that has had a major impact on this team. “She’s another great leader. She’s strong, tough, and does a lot of the dirty work for us.”

Outside of their two co-captains in Alarie and Baur, Littlefield, a junior point guard, has also helped reshape the focus and mentality of this team. In speaking with Berube, it was easy to tell how much she loves Littlefield’s game. “She’s just the type of player I love to coach: gritty, tough, willing to take charges. She’s the floor general that all successful teams have.”

WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 10: Carlie Littlefield #2 of the Princeton Tigers dribbles up court during a women’s basketball game against the George Washington Colonials at the Smith Center on November 102019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

In a recent post on Twitter, I called Littlefield one of the top-10 point guards in the country. While her 15.6 PPG and 5.4 RPG are noteworthy, it’s her defense that may go unnoticed at times, but oftentimes sets the tone for the Tigers. When asked about Littlefield’s defense, Berube said, “(It) sets the tone for the rest of our team. She can guard anybody.”

While Littlefield is the player that sets the tone on the defensive end, it has been Berube’s overall attention to detail and passion for teaching and playing defense, that has Princeton playing with a new sense of focus and drive heading into Ivy League play. For the Tigers, the stats speak for themselves. As of Tuesday, January 7, 2020, the Tigers are ranked 5th in the country in scoring defense. Last season, which saw Princeton win the Ivy League championship for a second consecutive season, the Tigers ranked 153rd in the country.

That’s a huge leap. For the Tigers, the reason is simple: it’s Berube. Berube, who consistently had her Tufts team in the top-5 nationally in scoring defense, has brought that same defensive-minded focus and mentality to the Ivy League. This is simply what she does: she teaches.

Alarie echoed those sentiments. “Her emphasis and focus on defense has been so important to us. It’s the center-point of Princeton basketball now and that’s how we want to be identified–through our defense.”

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO – MAY 25: 2018 USA Basketball Women’s U17 World Cup Team head coach Carla Berube gives instructions for a drill at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Finalists for the team will be announced on May 28 and will remain in Colorado Springs for training camp through May 30. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s easy for teams or players to talk about wanting to be great at defense. Anyone can say it or talk about it, but it’s different to actually put that mindset into action, and Berube is well aware of that. “If you want to be a great defensive team, it’s not just something you talk about. We get really excited when we get a great stop or a shot clock violation. Defense is something you get excited about.”

While the Tigers have shown that their defense is something that can drive their team and first-year coach to new heights in 2020, Berube is also quick to mention that this is a work in progress. “In practice, there’s a missed rotation, we are going to do it again. When there’s a missed box out, we are going to do it again. We aren’t where we want to be in March.”

Before the Tigers get to March and look to return to win the Ivy League Tournament and earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year, they will need to navigate an extremely difficult Ivy League schedule. That fact is not lost on them. “This league is so tough,” Littlefield told High Post Hoops. “Yale beat UNC, Cornell played West Virginia to a 5-point game the other day, it’s just a great league.”

One thing was clear in speaking with Berube, Alarie, and Littlefield, and that is that this team doesn’t just want to win the league again, they want to be great. Alarie talked about that desire to be great. “We want to win the Ivy League, be ranked, go far in the NCAA Tournament, and we are eager to make history at Princeton.” Littlefield echoed those sentiments. “Why not be the Ivy League team that goes the furthest?”

The question ‘why not’ has developed into a team mantra of sorts. Their hashtag on social media is #WhyNot.

Princeton’s commitment to the defensive end and desire to be known for their defense, will be a tough mentality for their opponents to penetrate. On the offensive end, Cunningham and Baur have been solid contributors, while Alarie and Littlefield make for one of the best guard-forward combinations in the country.  As Littlefield stated when asked what it’s like to play with Alarie, “Bella is a point guard’s dream.”

While the road to Ivy Madness is just about to get started, both Berube and her team, are off to a terrific start. There’s a long way to go before they will be able to look back and review their season, but this team, and their leaders, are ready to embrace the challenge, as they look to expand upon their tradition of winning, take Princeton basketball to new heights, and make history.

Hey, why not?

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