The Harvard women’s basketball team has found at least half a spot on the Ivy pedestal, following its sweep over Cornell and Columbia this weekend.
The Crimson battled the Big Red into double overtime in Newman Arena on Friday night and emerged with a 77-75 win, while Harvard overcame a 12-pont deficit on Saturday to beat Columbia 61-49 in Levien Gym.
With home contests against Yale and Brown next weekend and a game at Dartmouth left on the regular season schedule, the Crimson (19-5, 10-1 Ivy) is on a clear road to the NCAA tournament as it has clinched a share of the crown. Cornell was the legitimate threat for the title, but now lies on the brink of elimination in the Ivy race after its loss to Harvard and a 78-71 setback to Dartmouth on Saturday night.
The only way for Cornell to share the title would be for the Crimson to lose its three final games and the Big Red to sweep Princeton and Penn next weekend.
Freshman center Reka Cserny led the Crimson sweep, posting the game-high in both games, with 28 against Cornell and 22 against Columbia.
Harvard had to adjust for the absence of sophomore star Hana Peljto, who played for 32 minutes on Friday night but sat out Saturday’s game after a fainting spell on Friday.
“She had been sick all week,” sophomore forward Tricia Tubridy said. “She looked fine on the court, but once the game ended, there was this big relief and she just fainted for a few seconds. Jenn Monti also kind-of fainted for a second.”
Peljto visited the hospital where she received fluids through an IV.
Senior guard Jenn Monti also battled illness, but still scored a career-high 21 points in the win over Columbia.
Harvard 61, Columbia 49
Harvard’s first period woes continued on Saturday, as Columbia (11-13, 5-7) took a 12-point lead at the beginning of the game. The Crimson battled back to a 29-28 advantage at halftime, thanks in no small part to 11 points from Monti including the go-ahead three that closed the half.
“We made a point to ourselves to not underestimate Columbia,” Tubridy said. “Friday night was so physically and emotionally draining for the team.”
After the dramatic marathon at Cornell, Harvard wasn’t quite ready for the 5 p.m. game, a change from the usual 7 p.m. start time.
“Basically, it just took us 15 minutes to get our bodies together,” Tubridy said. “It all stopped when we switched our defense. We were playing man-to-man and we switched to a three-two.”
Playing without Peljto didn’t help matters either, though the Crimson stepped up in a big way to make up the extra points—a propensity the Crimson has demonstrated throughout the season.
Cserny and Monti lit up the scoreboard, amassing 22 and 21 points respectively. Monti contributed six assists at the point and Cserny put up nine boards. Tubridy seized 11 rebounds while junior Kate Ides grabbed seven and blocked three shots.
“We didn’t miss a beat in rebounding,” Monti said. “I picked up some of the scoring slack. Kate [Ides] actually did a great job. She just steps into that spot where Reka or Hana had been.”
In the second half, Harvard held on to its lead, though the Lions came within three with less than eight minutes remaining. But Columbia’s hopes of a comeback were swept away as Cserny went on a tear, scoring seven straight points to put the Crimson ahead 55-46 with 4:16 left. Cserny hit a three for a 58-49 Harvard advantage, and then hit the final shot of the game for a final score of 61-49.
“In every game there are going to be swings of momentum,” Tubridy said. “You have to be prepared for a team to outscore you on little [runs]. The key is to recognize that that’s going to happen, to not freak out when it happens, and stop it before they build up a lead.”
Harvard 77, Cornell 75
The Big Red entered Friday night half a game out of first, hoping to gain ground in its fight for what would be its first title in program history.
“We knew that it was ‘do or die’ for them,” Monti said.
Cornell’s (14-11, 8-4) support came in the form of 1,675 fans in Newman Arena on Friday night.
“The crowd made a huge difference for Cornell in terms of lifting the team,” Tubridy said.
With 2:37 left in regulation, the Crimson held at 62-50 lead that seemed to ensure victory. But Cornell struck back with a fury, forcing overtime with a 12-0 run that almost cost Harvard the game.
Cornell tri-captain Breean Walas led the charge, scoring two to begin the late rally. Walas added another basket after stripped Monti in the back court, plus three points from free throws. Tri-captain Do Stevens hit a trey to bring the Big Red within two and junior Ify Ossai knotted the game at 62 with two free throws. A Harvard turnover gave Cornell a final shot to win the game in regulation, as Walas missed a jumper as the buzzer sounded.
“We got a little bit too conservative,” Monti said. “We tried to take time off the clock too early. That was a huge error on our part.”
The drama didn’t end with regulation. The Big Red held a precarious lead with 2:15 to go in the first overtime, when Cserny stepped in with three free throws and Peljto tallied two, giving the Crimson a 69-66 advantage with 1:26 remaining.
A basket from Cornell junior Lynell Davis brought the Big Red within one, and a rebound from a Peljto shot gave Cornell a shot at the win. Sophomore Karen Force was fouled and stood on the charity line with three seconds left and the potential game-winner before her. Force missed the first shot, but tied the game at 69 with the second. Force stole the ball back and made it to the foul line, but couldn’t put the ball back up before the period ended.
“We lost our cool a little bit and got lucky a few times,” Monti said. “They had a few chances to win in both overtimes.”
Cserny scored seven points in the second overtime as Harvard climbed to a 76-74 advantage, but Walas cut the lead to one with a free throw with 49 seconds to go as the Big Red took a time out.
Whatever was designed during the time out never saw time on the court, as Cserny took a charge against Walas and a foul sent Peljto to the free-throw line. Peljto made one of two, which turned out to be the game’s final point.
Stevens grabbed the rebound on Pejlto’s missed shot and brought the ball down for a final attempt. Ossai got a layup off, but to no avail, as the buzzer sounded and Harvard got away with the win.
“We felt like we were in great shape, especially when they had a chance to win with three seconds to go in the first overtime,” Monti said. “Someone said at one point, ‘We’ll play all night.’”
Though it took two overtimes and cost a couple fainting spells, the Crimson didn’t have to play all night to secure an Ivy title.