One weekend after ascending to first place in the Ivy League, the Harvard women’s basketball team defended its pedestal with victories over Penn and Princeton at Lavietes Pavilion this weekend, but struggled to play to its full potential.
Harvard faced a Penn team on Friday that was desperate to avoid its fourth league loss and a near-certain end to its Ivy title defense. The Quakers came back from an early 16-6 deficit and led by as much as 46-41, but clutch baskets from junior Tricia Tubridy and freshman Reka Cserny in the final minutes lifted the Crimson to a 59-55 victory.
The game was riveting for the 978 fans in attendance, but Harvard didn’t want it to be that close.
“Usually when we start well, we tend to relax,” said sophomore forward Hana Peljto. “We made for an exciting game, but hopefully that won’t happen again.”
The Crimson hoped to emphatically avenge its only Ivy loss of the season on Saturday against Princeton and appeared headed in that direction with a 14-3 run to start the game. Harvard never led by that many points again, but never trailed either in a 78-70 victory.
The team was pleased with the end result, but not with the turnovers, missed shots and defensive breakdowns that came along the way.
“I think we definitely haven’t played our best game since Dartmouth [an 88-77 Ivy opening win],” Peljto said. “We’re just waiting for [our best] to come out one of these games.”
Peljto and Cserny were Harvard’s offensive leaders as usual. On Friday, Peljto led Harvard with 21 points and Cserny added 10, many of them in the clutch. On Saturday, Cserny led Harvard with 26 points, while Peljto tallied 22 points and grabbed a career-high 19 boards.
Weekend sweeps by both Harvard and Cornell set up a second first-place showdown next Friday. Harvard (17-5, 8-1 Ivy) has led Cornell (14-9, 8-2) by a half-game in the Ivy standings since beating the Big Red 64-58 at Lavietes on Feb. 9. A win this weekend would put the Crimson firmly in control of the Ivy race.
“Right now if we take care of our business every game, we win the title,” Harvard Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said. “We know it needs to be better basketball than this [weekend].”
Harvard 78, Princeton 70
The Crimson came into Saturday’s game expecting to make amends for allowing Princeton to fire at will from behind the arc in a 59-55 loss at Jadwin Gym on Jan. 11. But Harvard’s game plan the second time around didn’t go as expected.
“Our game plan was very clearly to take away all threes, and we just did not do that,” Delaney-Smith said. “We should have been able to do it in our zone and in our man, and with few exceptions.”
Junior Allison Cahill (6-of-11) and freshman Karen Bolster (3-of-7) led the Princeton three-point attack, which kept the Tigers in the game despite the early 14-3 deficit.
For the second time this weekend, Harvard allowed a basket in the final seconds of the first half. This time it allowed Princeton to cut the deficit to 41-37 at the break.
The Tigers pulled within 44-43 with 17:26 left, but even when the Crimson bent Saturday, it didn’t break.
One day after Tubridy was Harvard’s top three-point threat against Penn, junior guard Jenn Monti had the hot hand early in the second half on Saturday, hitting twice in the first four minutes.
When the Tigers cut the score to 53-52 with 11:55 left, the Crimson finally started to pull away. Freshman Rochelle Bell came off the bench to set up sophomore Kate Ides for a conventional three-point play, and co-captain Laura Barnard followed up with a three-pointer on Harvard’s next possession that made the score 59-52. The Tigers never came within striking distance again.
Though Princeton had the superior three-point shooting, it couldn’t match Harvard’s height. The Crimson dominated the boards by a 46-30 margin. Peljto and Cserny each had seven offensive rebounds.
Five of Cserny’s came in the first half, when she scored 10 of Harvard’s first 16 points. Cornell sent her to the line four times, and she did not miss any of her eight free throws.
Cserny showed her prowess on defense as well. Her seven steals were one short of the single-game record set by Allison Feaster ’98.
Co-captain Katie Gates started and played 30 minutes—two things she hadn’t done in months due to injury.
“She’s our emotional leader, and we need her out there,” Peljto said. “It’s so great to have her back.”
Harvard 59, Penn 55
The Quakers were starving for a win on Friday night to keep their dwindling title hopes alive. Clutch Harvard baskets in the final minutes prevented them from pulling it off.
On a night when eight Harvard players combined to make just 2-of-19 three-point attempts, the Crimson relied heavily on Tubridy’s 3-of-4 shooting from behind in the arc. Her first three opened the game, the second came when Penn had its largest lead of the evening at 46-41, and the last—and most important—put Harvard ahead for good, 56-53, with 1:31 left.
Penn sophomore Jewel Clark, who led the Quakers with 16 points, cut the Crimson lead to one with an inside shot through traffic at the one-minute mark. But Cserny answered with a leaner over two Penn defenders to push the lead back to 58-55 with 33 seconds left.
Penn had one last chance to tie the game, but the Harvard defense surrendered nothing inside. Quaker junior guard Tara Twomey, who had rallied Penn all game with her aggressive defense, was forced to fire a desperation three with the shot clock winding down. The shot, well beyond her range, fell into Cserny’s hands.
Cserny then hit one of two free throws to ice the 59-55 Harvard victory.
But the Crimson felt the game should never have been that close.
Harvard went ahead 16-6 in the first 6:19, and appeared to be headed to a repeat of its 76-56 blowout of Penn on Jan. 12, but 14 first-half turnovers let to Harvard’s unraveling. Penn came back to tie the game 31-31 at the half.
“We did a lot with our turnovers in the first half to make [Penn] believers of themselves,” Delaney-Smith said. “It could have been a very different ball game.”
Many of those turnovers came as Harvard misfired on long outlet passes. Penn tempted the Crimson with an aggressive press that occasionally left Harvard players open on the opposite end.
“Early on, we did a good job with [the press] but then we started to be a little too fancy,” Monti said.
Another factor in Harvard’s struggles was the nine minutes Peljto spent on the bench after picking up two fouls. After netting ten of her 21 points came during the 16-6 run, Peljto didn’t score again in the first half.
Harvard’s defense held Penn without an open shot for most of the first six minutes, but the Quakers found better looks as the game went on, especially with Clark pulling up in transition.
“A couple of times we laid back [trying] to take a charge and [Clark] pulled up right at the middle of the key,” Monti said. “She’s a legitimate player, but we didn’t do a good job in that.”
Penn players were most successful creating their own shots against Harvard’s zone. The Quakers assisted on just two baskets all evening.
Harvard switched from a two-three zone to a three-two in the second half. The switch slowed down Penn, but the Quakers made defensive adjustments that disoriented Harvard as well.
“Our offense was never outstanding,” Monti said “They were playing some switching [man-to-man] at the top that caused us some problems. We got back to our best when we played in transition.”
The game’s most harrowing transition basket came with six minutes left as Gates chased down a misfired outlet pass in the far left corner and—to keep the ball in play—heaved the ball in desperation to Peljto underneath the basket. Peljto tamed the wild ball and put it in for two points.
“Most players would not have caught [the pass from Gates], never mind put it in the basket,” Delaney-Smith said.
Gates also earned the easiest transition basket of the game with 2:09 left when she picked off a pass between two Penn guards at halfcourt for an easy layup that put Harvard ahead 53-51.
Gates’ contributions were crucial with Dunham missing the last 13 minutes of the game after turning her ankle. Dunham also collided with a wall after chasing down a Monti pass in the first half.
Dunham missed all of Saturday’s Princeton game as well, but she is expected back in time for next weekend.
Poor free-throw shooting doomed the Quakers, who shot just 3-for-7 from the line in the second half, while the Crimson hit 6-of-7.
Delaney-Smith felt that Peljto, in particular, deserved to be at the line more often. She praised Peljto’s maturity in dealing with the situation.
“She was fouled the whole game and didn’t get any calls,” Delaney-Smith said. “She’s tough. You’re not going to see her react to that. You’re not going to see her whine. And that’s why I feel she’s a great player.”
As a whole, the Penn game proved to Harvard that nothing will come easy for the rest of the season.
“I think every game is going to be like this from now on, because everyone thinks they should be on top,” Monti said.