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Mike Lopresti | | November 18, 2021

Despite 613 days without playing, Princeton's women's basketball team carries the sport's longest winning streak

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The longest winning streak in college basketball belongs to a coach who spent last season hiking in the New Jersey woods and becoming acquainted with her Peloton.

It belongs to a junior guard who spent last season working as a clinical aide in a physical therapy office, and a senior guard who spent the winter of 2021 trying to find any pickup game she could, especially against guys.

The longest winning streak in college basketball — 25 games — belongs to the Princeton women, who went 613 days without playing and now have gone two years without losing. “It’s kind of bizarre,” coach Carla Berube was saying from her office on campus, the one she had to stay away from for six months last year.

Yeah, this is a COVID tale, all right.

In March of 2020, Princeton was 26-1 with 22 victories in a row, looking forward to rolling through the conference tournament and then maybe getting the highest seed ever in the NCAA tournament for an Ivy League team. “We were about two or three days away from making that happen,” guard Julia Cunningham said.

Then the tournament, and the world, shut down because of the pandemic. It would be months before most college basketball teams gathered again. For Princeton, it would be a lot longer than that. The Ivy League scrubbed the 2020-21 season as well — the only Division I conference to stay dark. Princeton closed campus for the fall term.

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When the Tigers opened this season with a 59-42 victory at Villanova, it had been 20 months since they their last game against Cornell. “I think it was times 10,” Berube said of her team’s excitement that night. It was as if that winning streak had been stored in the closet.

But maybe it’s like riding the proverbial bike; you never forget how. The Tigers are 3-0, winning by an average of 22 points. The streak has been unpacked and goes on, with three faces from the unsettling days of 2020 back and leading the way — Cunningham at 19 points per game, senior Abby Meyers at 17.3 and junior Grace Stone at 11.7. The defense has allowed only 31.1 percent shooting so far.

It had been so long since the last game that Berube, a superstitious sort, had to remind herself of the necessary routines; what she always wrote on the board, the exact moment she gets her pregame gum.

“In some ways it felt like years,” she said. “But when the ball goes up and I’m on the sideline watching the team, it all comes back. It feels right. It feels like that’s where I should be.” And she’s liked the energy from a team with so many players who had to put aside their basketball passion for so long. “I want them to play like it’s been 613 days every practice and every game. So far they have done that.”

Added Meyers: “That’s something that Coach Berube has promised to always let us know prior to games; that it’s been 613 days since we last played the game we love, on a stage, on a platform for the people to see. It’s up to us to really make a statement and play like we haven’t played in a long time.”

Said Cunningham, “I think we learned that it’s not something you can take for granted. It was taken away from us so quickly, right before the best part of the basketball season.”

So what does one do during a lost season?

“There were some silver linings,” Berube said. “I have three young kids so I got to spend a lot of time with my family. I got to enjoy watching women’s college basketball. But there was also a longing. I missed it terribly. I missed being with my team, I missed being on the college campus, I missed my colleagues, I missed my staff.”

She learned to love her Peloton and went hiking to get to know the outdoors of New Jersey. Princeton hired her in 2019 after a long and successful career at Tufts. What a way to spend a second season on the job.

She used Zoom, FaceTime, phones, to keep in contact with her far-flung staff and players. She couldn’t go into the office since no one was allowed in campus buildings last fall, so she worked out of her guest bedroom. “I got an orange chair that I could sit in, so it made me feel like I was at Princeton,” she said. Without the relentless parade of games of a normal season, there was time to connect with her team.

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“I got to know them in a different way,” she said. She would often talk basketball strategy with them, too, “trying to keep our basketball brains still sharp. I wanted to make sure we weren’t losing the mental pieces of basketball, too.”

Cunningham went to work at the physical therapy clinic with an eye toward a future in medicine. “We just focused on some other aspects of our lives that normally two years into college, you wouldn’t be able to focus on so strongly as a Division I athlete,” she said. She also worked on her individual game. Occasionally she would drive with her roommates through an empty Princeton campus.  

Meyers sought to develop her skills as well, traveling hither and yon to play pickup basketball wherever she could. Guys’ games, especially, for the challenge. “It took a lot of patience and overall dedication to the game,” she said. “I had to look at it a whole other way.”

Meanwhile, the season swirled around them. Everyone else was playing. Berube got to watch a lot of games from her alma mater, Connecticut. Cunningham had her TV on for games, too. Meyers not so much until the NCAA tournament. “To take away maybe the pain of watching the games, I didn’t,” she said. “It kind of made stepping away from the game a little less painful.”

There had to be room for frustration — maybe even a dash of bitterness — at the Ivy League taking away the season when no other Division I league did. The women of Princeton tried not to look at it that way.

Berube: “I never felt any anger. I think there was just a longing. It was challenging for them to watch other teams competing, but I think they understood it.

“I’m more of a glass is half full person. I was never, that should be me. That was the hand we were dealt, let’s just make the most of it.”

Cunningham: “At some point you realize it’s out of your control. We did the best we could do with that year.”

Meyers: “I think it’s one of those five stages of acceptance. At first you’re in denial, you’re angry, but eventually you come to think everything happens for a reason. We’re back a year later. That’s all history so we’ve turned the page.”

On this page, the winning streak is still going, but needs to be put in perspective.

One, its spaced out and odd nature. It has never seen an NCAA tournament. “I’m not sure it really means too much. Those other wins were so long ago, we had to close that chapter,” Berube said. “We’ve mentioned it but it’s certainly not something that that’s important to us.”

Two, it won’t get the Tigers where they want to go. “It’s cool to have and it’s cool to be able to recognize that achievement,” Meyers said. “But at the end of the day it’s not going to win the Ivy League tournament.”

Still, 25 is a shiny number. The next longest streak in women’s basketball is Cleveland State’s six. For the men, it’s Baylor at nine. Princeton’s next game is at Rhode Island Saturday. That’s the exact two-year anniversary of the last defeat. Do the Tigers even remember the last game the lost?

“Good ol’ Iowa,” Meyers said.

It was a terrific game on Nov. 20, 2019. Cunningham’s 3-pointer at the buzzer forced overtime in Iowa City, but the Hawkeyes eventually won 77-75. The experience had many lessons for Princeton. How could the Tigers know they’d have so long to study them? “When you have a whole year off,” Berube said, “you certainly can dissect your games.”

All in all, it has been quite the journey. However long this winning streak lasts, wherever these Princeton Tigers go this season, they all understand the unprecedented road they were asked to take. One to recall decades later at reunions.

"Remember what happened in 2020? . . . “

Cunningham had a point: “It’ll be a good story forever.”

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