"I'm dumbfounded. I don't know why we lost this game."
Thus spoke Harvard women's basketball coach Kathy Delaney Smith following last night's 87-77 loss to the University of Rhode Island.
The defeat, which marked the Crimson's fourth loss in its last five games, was especially painful in that Harvard again seemed poised to win but faltered down the stretch.
Following a Katy Davis turn around, which gave Harvard a 69-68 edge, the Crimson completely self destructed. With 3:30 remaining in the game, URI went on 13-1 run, courtesy of shoddy Harvard defense sloppy ball-handling and poor decision-making.
After the game, the players appeared equally stupefied, unable to explain their recent slew of last-minute losses.
"We've been in every game at the end, and we've just crawled into a shell," senior co-captain Elizabeth Proudfit said. "No one has any idea what's going on."
Without a doubt, though, there have been several maladies that have consistently plagued Harvard through-out its losses to George Washington, Providence, Duquesne and URI.
1. In each of its losses, Harvard's opponent has exploited the Crimson's lack of an inside presence defensively.
Both of Harvard's starting post-players, Davis and Allison Feaster, measure less than six feet and often appear over-matched by taller, heavier forwards and centers.
"Everybody has gone to their post players for their big shots [against us]," Delaney Smith said.
URI power forward Tasha King netted 21 against Harvard last night, while Duquesne center Trixie Wolf lit up the interior of the Crimson 'D' for 24 points.
But to place full responsibility on the broad shoulders of Harvard's front-court would be unfair. Harvard's guards need to assert more pressure on their counterparts, as well.
"Our defense has to get better," Proudfit said. "We're letting the [opposing] post get the ball easily, and we're not pressuring the ball coming up the court."
2. As anyone who has seen a women's basketball game can attest, good things happen for Harvard when Feaster is on the court.
Unfortunately for the Crimson, Feaster has spent significant minutes on the bench in each of Harvard's losses. Against URI, the sophomore power forward played only 25 minutes, tallying 25 points and hauling down 16 rebounds during that time.
Feaster leads the team in personal fouls and was averaging only 22.6 minutes per game entering last night's contest.
It is imperative that Harvard find a way to keep Feaster out of foul trouble and on the court for greater periods of time.
3. Delaney Smith should also return Feaster to her physical, low-post game of last season.
Feaster has somewhat abandoned her low post play this year, preferring to step back shoot the trey.
"She appears to want the three," Delaney Smith said. "She's a short, Division I post-player, and she's not getting a lot of her shots in the paint."
Not that Feaster has been ineffective from long distance. Rather, the sophomore is making over 50 percent of her three-point attempts.
"I'm trying to be a little more versatile," Feaster said. "I feel as comfortable out there [behind the arc] as I do posting up."
A failure to make accurate entry passes into the post is also responsible for the paucity of inside scoring.
An example from last night: Harvard guards forced several passes into 6'3" freshman Alison Higgins, which resulted in turnovers.
"We have to give Allie [Higgins] the ball high. She likes the ball high, and we're not delivering the ball to her to fit her needs," Delaney Smith said. "We are just starting to pay attention to getting the ball into the five player, [and] we need to get more scoring from our post players."
But perhaps more than anything else, Harvard lacks the confidence and killer instinct necessary to win closely contested ballgames.
"I think when it gets down to two minutes we all have to get more aggressive and get assertive and want the ball and want to shoot the ball," Proudfit said. "We should have slaughtered [URI]. We were controlling them on defense, offensively, and on the boards."
If the women's basketball team is to win the Ivy League title this season, it must remedy these weaknesses and find the poise and mental toughness to excel in clutch situations.