March S[imulation]adness: Princeton-Dayton preview

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 11: Bella Alarie #31 of the Princeton Tigers is introduced before the game at The Palestra on March 11, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Princeton defeated Penn 63-34. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 11: Bella Alarie #31 of the Princeton Tigers is introduced before the game at The Palestra on March 11, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Princeton defeated Penn 63-34. (Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images) /

By Jenn Hatfield and Natalie Heavren

A battle of mid-majors features plenty to discuss

[Please enjoy our March S[imulation]adness content. For more about this project, check out our explainer post.]

As the opening round of March S[imulation]adness nears, tipping off later this week, it’s time to preview the upcoming games, including the always finicky 5-12 matchups. In the Greenville regional, 5-seed Princeton (26-1) will take on 12-seed Dayton (25-8) in Iowa City.

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“I’m really happy that our team has earned the highest seed in program history,” Princeton head coach Carla Berube told High Post Hoops after examining the simulated bracket. “I thought we put together a really great resume for the NCAA committee to consider. Could we have potentially hosted?  Yes, possibly, but I’m happy with where we were placed.”

Princeton played in the 5-12 matchup two years ago, falling to Maryland as a 12-seed. Last year, the Tigers pushed 6-seed Kentucky to the brink, losing by just five points. This year, they hope and expect that things will be different. This is Princeton’s best seed ever and its ninth tournament appearance since 2010.

Dayton is also making its ninth tournament appearance since 2010, returning after missing the tournament in 2019. The Flyers haven’t advanced to the Round of 32 since 2015, and Princeton will not make it easy for them. In 2015, Dayton made a run to the Elite Eight as a 7-seed. Dayton was also a 12-seed in 2017 and fell to 5-seed Tennessee 66-57.

“I haven’t watched much Dayton film yet, but know of their strong program,” Berube said. “I’m looking forward to the matchup. Offensively, we always want to get paint touches whether it’s on the drive or by feeding the post. We hope to get quality possessions by executing our transition and half court offenses well.”

Breaking Down Princeton

Princeton is led by Berube and senior star Bella Alarie, who is a projected first-round pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft. Berube has plenty of NCAA Tournament experience as a player and coach, winning the 1995 national championship as a player at UConn and reaching eight straight Sweet 16s and four Final Fours as the head coach at Division III Tufts University.

“I hope my NCAA experience will serve as a good guide since I’ve been fortunate to have played and coached in several NCAA Tournament games at UCONN and Tufts,” Berube said. “It’s an exciting time for my staff and team to be in the NCAA Tournament but we’ll be treating this as a business trip back out to Iowa City.”

Now in her first season at Princeton, Berube has one of the most versatile players in the nation in the 6’4 Alarie, who is averaging 17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 blocks per game this season. In last year’s narrow loss to Kentucky, Alarie had 20 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists.

Princeton also has a strong supporting cast, including junior point guard Carlie Littlefield (13.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists per game) and sophomore guard Julia Cunningham (8.2 points per game). Against Dayton’s conference rival George Washington in November, Littlefield had a school-record 10 steals to go along with 22 points and narrowly missed out on a triple-double. Later in the month, Cunningham had a season-high 17 points, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime, in the team’s lone loss to Iowa.

Alarie, Littlefield, and Cunningham lead a team that ended the season at No. 22 in the AP Poll after going undefeated in conference play. While all three are strong offensive players, the team’s success starts on the defensive end. According to Her Hoop Stats, Princeton allows the fewest points per 100 possessions of any team in the country and holds opponents to just 33.8% shooting from the field, which ranks seventh-best nationally. Its steals per game (10.7) and blocks per game (5.6) per game also rank in the top 15.

“Hopefully we’re well prepared to face a tough defense,” she said, “as we face that every day in practice. … I think our team is feeling confident and strong and looking forward to playing our best basketball of the season [in the NCAA Tournament].”

Breaking Down Dayton

Dayton is led by 2020 Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year Shauna Green, who is in her fourth year coaching the Flyers, and 2020 A-10 Tournament MVP Jayla Scaife. Scaife averages 13.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Scaife had a season-high 27 points in the team’s regular-season finale against Saint Louis.

The Flyers have found great success this season, going 25-8 this season, including 15-1 in conference play, in part due to the team’s depth. No one on the team averages 30 or more minutes per game, allowing the team to play with energy for 40 minutes every game.

Scaife, Kyla Whitehead, Erin Whalen, Shakeela Fowler, and Araion Bradshaw all average between 26 and 30 minutes per game, providing a solid core for Green to rely on. Six more players average between five and 18 minutes per game. Dayton regularly plays at least 10 players, something that will challenge Princeton, particularly late in the game.

The Flyers’ other primary scorer is redshirt junior Erin Whalen. She spent her first two seasons at Vanderbilt and in her first eligible season at Dayton she averaged 12.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Whalen was third in the A-10 in made threes and was 6-7 from behind the arc in the A-10 quarterfinals against Richmond.

If the Flyers keep this game low-scoring, similar to their 48-44 win over Fordham in January, they will have a better shot of moving on to the Round of 32.

Series History

This will be the fourth meeting all-time between the two teams and the first to take place in the postseason. Dayton has won the last two meetings, most recently a 62-56 overtime victory in November 2016. Then-freshmen Scaife and Alarie both had double-doubles: Scaife recorded 11 points and 10 rebounds and Alarie notched 11 points and 11 rebounds.

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