With 13:03 left in Friday night's battle against Penn for Ivy League supremacy, the Harvard women's basketball team appeared to be beaten.
Devastated by the loss of junior center Melissa Johnson right before the half and the unstoppable Penn transition offense early in the second half, the Crimson found itself buried in a 59-43 hole.
But in its most dramatic effort of the season, Harvard staged a furious rally led by the near-perfect shooting of captain Laela Sturdy and sophomore guard Jenn Monti. The comeback was completed when freshman guard Bree Kelley drained a clutch hook shot, her patented move, to give the Crimson a 74-73 lead with 1:41 remaining.
But the Quakers proved to have the upper hand in the end. Guard Mandy West hit a 3-pointer to give Penn the lead again. With 18.2 seconds and a 78-76 deficit, Harvard had a chance to win the game, but miscommunication and confusion on the final play forced Monti into a rushed, off-balance 3-point shot as time ran out.
Though the comeback was ostensibly wasted, it was key to Harvard's retention of the Ivy lead. Penn, completely drained by Friday's game, was beaten around in its Saturday night game at Dartmouth. That coupled with Harvard's strong 73-67 win over Princeton (4-17, 1-6 Ivy) the same night forced a three-way tie between the Big Green (14-6, 6-1), the Crimson (13-6, 6-1) and the Quakers (15-6, 6-1) atop the Ivy standings.
Harvard 73, Princeton 67
"We tried to start strong," Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said. "I think every team is going to get up for us; that's a fact because we're Harvard and we win often."
Harvard shot the lights out in the first half, draining 63.0 percent from the floor, including 7-of-13 from 3-point range. Sturdy and guard Courtney Egelhoff, the team's only seniors, led the way as the Crimson built a 43-34 halftime lead.
But in the second half, Harvard's season-long nemesis, the huge-lead let-down, struck once again. The gap between the Crimson and Tigers peaked at 13 on a Sturdy 3-pointer with 12:41 remaining. Over the next seven minutes, Harvard managed just one basket, a 3-pointer from sophomore Laura Barnard.
Luckily for the Crimson, the Tigers weren't shooting particularly well either. The Princeton offense, which, like their men's team, relies on screens and picks to set up open 3-pointers and back-door cuts, was unable to make its shots with any consistency all day. The Harvard defense kept the Tiger shooting down to 41.4 percent.
"I am very proud," Delaney-Smith said. "Their offense is tough when you go man, even zone, because they're all 3-point shooters. It brings our forwards out and then they drive on you."
Still, the Crimson defense was unable to offset the offense's woes in the middle of the second half. Princeton guards Maggie Langlas and Kate Thirolf both hit 3-pointers on a 13-3 Tiger run that cut the lead to 57-54 with 6:09 left.
But the Crimson's ability to win this game was never in much doubt, with Sturdy, Monti and Egelhoff coming off the bench well-rested to spell the subs who had been in the game for the Princeton run. With the Harvard lead down to 59-57, it was Sturdy who built it up again.
Sturdy took a pass from freshman forward Kate Ides for an easy layup that stretched the lead to four. She followed that up with a 3-pointer from the top of the key, making her a perfect 3-of-3 on the day, to increase the lead to 74-67 with 4:24 remaining.
The shot capped off a magnificent weekend for Sturdy, who shot 17-of-29 with 43 points in two games. For the season, Sturdy has shot 29-of-53 from 3-point range, and her 54.7 percentage should now make her second in the country.
Princeton seemed intent on threatening another comeback, cutting the lead to 66-62 with 2:22 left. But a 3-pointer from Kelley, which ended a personal day-long scoring drought, effectively iced the victory.
"This game was tough emotionally," Ides said. "There was a little let-down from last night, but it helped us get pumped up again. We wanted to tell everyone that we're not going to lose again. Everyone's going to try to take us out; we've just got to keep it up."
It was a breakthrough game for Ides, who saw increased playing time due to Melissa Johnson's injury. Ides chalked up 12 points in 16 minutes of playing time. When the Tiger defense went outside to cover the Crimson 3-point shooters, Ides was often left open underneath, and she was able to go strong to the basket with consistency, hitting 5-of-6 shots on the day.
"It felt good to get out there," Ides said. "It's just fun playing basketball. That's all I'm here to do."
Ides also played a huge role defensively against the Tigers.
"Kate's very mobile," Delaney-Smith said. "She's a good perimeter player. She was able to stop the threes and the penetration."
Egelhoff also had a big game for the Crimson, scoring 14 points to make up for a relatively disappointing game against Penn.
Egelhoff's two 3-pointers in the first half were key to the early Crimson lead, and her two steals in the second half helped to kill the Tiger comeback.
Penn 78, Harvard 76
"We were supposed to run an isolation low for Jenn to get the shot, but we didn't execute it that great," Sturdy said. "She's made those before, so she was definitely the right person to have the ball."
On the final play, Monti dribbled the ball up to the 3-point line, and almost directly into Sturdy, who was attempting to set a pick. With a player still in her face, Monti circled around the top of the key as the clock ticked down.
Monti managed to get some breathing room in the final seconds, but the clock forced her to rush her shot from an awkward position from the right wing. The desperation try was well off-target, and the opportunity to take sole possession of first place was lost.
"It wasn't quite what we wanted," Monti said. "We wanted everybody to be on the baseline. There were some confusion about what we were in on the last play."
With the 74-73 lead, the momentum, and the crowd of 1,213 fans on their feet, the Crimson appeared to be in control.
But some calls that went against Harvard took steam out of the rally. On the possession after Kelley's clutch hook shot, Penn appeared to lose the ball out-of-bounds, but the referees claimed the ball had touched a Crimson jersey. West, who had been unstoppable all day, capitalized on the opportunity, hitting a long 3-pointer to give Penn the lead again.
Then on the Crimson's next possession, Harvard fell victim to a questionable charging call as Kate Ides took a pass on the blocks, turned around for a shot and ran into a Penn defender.
After Penn's Julie Epton hit 1-of-2 from the line to make the score 77-74, Monti took control. She drove down into traffic at the corner of the paint, and threw up a tough shot that rolled around two or three times before finally rolling in with 29 seconds left.
But Harvard made a major error on the subsequent play. Eleven seconds rolled off the clock before the Crimson fouled anyone. Monti could have used some of those 11 seconds in the final moments of the game to get a better shot off or find a teammate with a pass.
Nevertheless, Harvard was pleased about the way the game was turned around in the second half.
"I think the one great about our team is that we never lose confidence," Sturdy said. "Even though they went on a run, we knew we were going to never give up and fight back. We were really proud our team stepped up; we just kind of ran out of time in the end."
Kelley started the rally for the Crimson by hitting a jump shot and a layup to cut the deficit to 12. On the day, Kelley shot 8-of-14 and netted a career-high 17 points.
With 10:03 left, the Crimson needed someone to step up and make a huge play, and as usual, it was Monti who delivered, draining an open trey from the left corner to bring Harvard within nine.
Then Sturdy single-handedly took over the Harvard offense. In a 3:25 span, Sturdy scored 11 of Harvard's 13 points. When the dust settled, the Crimson trailed only 69-67.
Sturdy was especially clutch from the free throw line in that stretch, hitting 5-of-6 shots from the stripe. For the game, Sturdy shot 9-of-13 with a team-high 24 points.
Then in the next few minutes, Harvard finished off the comeback. Kelley stepped up again for the Crimson. Her trey with 3:46 left cut the gap to one.
Quaker forward Diana Caramanico--who led all scorers with a quiet 33 points--beat freshman center Sarah Johnson down low to put Penn back up by three. But a Study jumper, followed by a Caramanico miss and the Kelley hook shot gave Harvard the lead for the first time since the closing moments of the first half.
While the early part of Harvard's comeback, a 15-3 run, was characterized by a Quaker offensive slowdown, the latter part saw both teams running their offenses efficiently, where any defensive stop was huge.
Ides did an excellent job filling in defensively for the injured Melissa Johnson in the second half. In the midst of the Crimson run, Caramanico ran completely untouched on a back-door cut and scored. On the next possession, she tried to run the same play, but Ides stepped and put a big hit on Caramanico as she came around. Ides then forced Caramanico away from the rebound to secure the stop for Harvard.
"I thought it was amazing, the combination of freshman that were out on the court for the majority of time in a game like this," Delaney-Smith said.
Delaney-Smith tried every possible combination of players to replace Melissa Johnson in the second half, rotating between sophomore Lindsay Ryba and freshmen Kate Ides, Sarah Johnson and Hallie Boger down low.
But Melissa Johnson's absence really showed in the 21-6 Penn run that started the second half.
"I knew Melissa was on their minds," Delaney-Smith said. "Penn's transition game is very good. They pull up to shoot in transition, coming down one-on-one on the pull-up. We just have to do a better job with that."
Caramanico and West killed the Crimson early in the second half. For the game, West scored 23 points including four 3-pointers, none bigger than her shot with 1:20 left that gave Penn the lead for good.
"I think maybe we stayed in our zone a little bit too long," Monti said. "Maybe we didn't come out far enough. Whatever--[West] is going to have her points."
When Melissa Johnson was in the game, she was dominant. She scored on consecutive possessions early in the game to give Harvard an 8-0 lead. She had eight points before going down with a knee injury right before halftime.
The Crimson led for most of the first half, but West and Caramanico got hot at the very end for the Quakers, and managed to put Harvard down 38-37 at the half.
"West and Caramanico both shot out of their minds," Sturdy said. "We knew they were going to do that. We've got to be better prepared to stop that."
But despite its defensive struggles, the Crimson left the game as confident as ever.
"I would hope this team leaves this game with the confidence to know that we can go to Penn and beat them in their place," Delaney-Smith said. "If we're healthy we can definitely beat them. They will be scared to play us down there. They won't be full of confidence. They are aware Melissa wasn't out there. They are aware that there wasn't one player who stopped Melissa while she was out there."