Harvard women's basketball Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith is a master.
She has quietly honed her craft over the course of 17 years in Cambridge, breaking through nationally with a near-perfect sculpture in 1998: a team that went perfect in the Ivy League and upset top-seeded Stanford to become the first 16 seed to beat a top seed in a men's or women's NCAA basketball tournament.
This year, with two senior holdovers from that NCAA team, a junior transfer from North Carolina and a plethora of freshmen and sophomores, Delaney-Smith had a deep and tall--but relatively fresh--lump of clay from which to mold a team.
But the master had a personal challenge as well. In December, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, for which she has been receiving treatment.
Despite the newcomers on the court and the personal misfortune off of it, Delaney-Smith turned her group of players into a cohesive, if imperfect, work, developing pieces for the future while trying to achieve in the present.
Harvard (16-10, 9-5 Ivy) wound up the year in a tie for second place in the Ivy League with Penn. Dartmouth won the crown with a 12-2 record, one of its losses coming at the hands of the Crimson. Beset with injuries and fatigue, Harvard, which started off a perfect 5-0 in the Ivy, ended the year on a 1-3 slide.
Embodying the tone of the season, the final note was a disappointing 94-76 loss to first-place Dartmouth in Hanover in March. Captain Laela Sturdy and fellow senior Courtney Egelhoff did their best to make their last game a sweet one, but Dartmouth senior guard Courtney Banghart was tenacious in her final home game and ensured that the Crimson seniors would not find a second win over their arch-rivals.
The Big Green avenged a loss to the Crimson in January, easily Harvard's biggest win of the season--a 73-67 romp in front of 2,035 home fans and a DirecTV audience. The game was not as close as the score indicated.
"The rivalry [with Dartmouth] is getting stronger and stronger every year," Sturdy said after the first game. "I thought we played pretty intense. We were in control the whole time. We always kept our composure."
Sturdy, Harvard's leading scorer on the season, led the Crimson in that game with 15 points. Junior center Melissa Johnson, a 6'5 transfer from North Carolina, added 13 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the contest.
Harvard steamrolled its competition in the early part of the Ivy League season before losing to Penn in a 78-76 heartbreaker at Lavietes Pavilion. The Crimson did, though, take home-and-home sweeps from Yale, Cornell and Princeton.
The Crimson notched several big wins early in the year, including a 66-52 win over Ohio State in the Harvard Invitational over Thanksgiving weekend and a 78-62 road win over Mount St. Mary's.
Tough non-conference losses came against regional opponents Northeastern, Boston University, New Hampshire and Holy Cross.
Sturdy, a proven scorer at power forward coming into the season, was easily the Crimson's most potent threat. She earned First Team All-Ivy honors with spin moves and rebounds in the paint, and could also draw defenders out to the three-point line. She hovered around 50 percent all year from beyond the arc and stayed in the top five in the country in three-point percentage for much of the year. A lack of attempts cut her from the official list down the stretch run.
Egelhoff, a distance ace and defensive stalwart at two-guard, was often called upon in clutch situations to put in a three. In a game at Yale Feb. 19 that ultimately went into overtime before Harvard won, she hit her first five three-point attempts.
Johnson, an honorable mention All-Ivy selection, was a key newcomer for the Crimson this season. Before going down with a season-ending knee injury during a February loss to Penn, Johnson anchored the defense down low and grabbed countless rebounds. Had she played a complete season, she would have been among the nation's leaders in rebounding. Johnson had surgery on the knee in April and will suit up for the Crimson as co-captain next year.
Sophomore point guard Jenn Monti, likely the most exciting player on the team to watch and a Second Team All-Ivy selection, ably served as floor general for the Crimson, handing out dazzling assist after dazzling assist. She finished the year tied for 15th in the country in dishes with 6.1 per game. In a home matchup with Yale, Monti set the Harvard single-game assist record with 14.
Sophomore Katie Gates, a starter in Delaney-Smith's original lineup this season, was out for much of the year following a concussion, which opened the door for a number of players to step up in her place. Freshman Bree Kelley, a member of the All-Ivy Rookie Team, often started at the two or three spot in her place, and she gradually improved over the course of the season, developing a wicked post-up hook shot.
The rest of Harvard's bench stepped into the spotlight when it counted. Junior Lisa Kowal came back from injury in the middle of the season to spell Monti and give the Crimson a much-needed secondary ballhandler. Freshmen post players Sarah Johnson, Melissa's sister, and Kate Ides lent depth in the paint. Sophomore Laura Barnard came on strong at the end of the season, exploding for three-pointers left and right in the last few games, including a 17-point outburst with four treys against Cornell in March.
The future is looking bright for the Crimson, and Harvard is easily one of the favorites for an Ivy title next year. But that may not have been were it not for the progress made this season.
"It's been a great season," Sturdy said in Hanover after the final buzzer sounded on her career. "I can't say enough about the quality of the people on this team. Win or lose, it's been a fun ride."