The Crimson (14-4, 6-0 Ivy) gained sole possession of first place in the Ivy League last weekend after convincing home wins over Brown and Yale.
Despite Harvard’s dominance in the Ivies thus far, this weekend’s games at Columbia (10-9, 3-3 Ivy) and Cornell (4-15, 1-5 Ivy) will not necessarily be easy victories.
The contests will be the first away games for Harvard in nearly six weeks. The Crimson last played a road game on January 4—a 56-53 victory over Dartmouth. And although Columbia is currently in fourth place in the Ivy League and Cornell is in seventh, each opponent could provide a formidable challenge for the Crimson.
Columbia has only one home loss all season and its three Ivy League losses have been by an average of only three points. Junior guard Sue Altman has emerged as one of the top players in the league. The transfer student from Holy Cross has made an immediate impact in her first year of eligibility with the Lions.
Altman is averaging over 15 points a game on the season and has significantly increased her level of play in recent weeks. In Columbia’s split with Princeton and Penn last weekend, Altman averaged 24 points per game.
“Sue has given us a scoring threat that we haven’t had in the last couple of years,” said Columbia head coach Jay Butler. “She can score from both inside and out.”
In addition to a potent offense, Columbia also boasts one of the best defenses in the league. Last week, Columbia held Penn to just 57 points—well below the Quakers’ Ivy League-leading average of 69.5. The Lions also lead the league in rebounding margin at nearly plus five per game.
“We know rebounding is something we need to do well against Columbia and Cornell,” said sophomore center Reka Cserny. “That sets up our fast break offense.”
On Saturday night, Harvard will face a hungry Big Red team looking to follow up on a strong showing in each of its games last weekend, as well as avenge a heart-breaking double overtime loss to the Crimson last season.
Last year, down 62-50 with 2:15 to play, the Big Red went on a 12-0 run to end the game and force overtime. Harvard eventually prevailed after a last-second shot by Cornell’s Ify Ossai fell short in the second extra period.
Cserny scored a game-high 28 points for the Crimson, netting ten of her team’s 15 points in the overtimes.
“Reka and [junior forward] Hana [Peljto] are the best scoring tandem in the league,” said Cornell head coach Dayna Smith. “I am not sure anyone can stop both of them in a single game. We will need to focus on playing team defense.”
Offensively, the Big Red is led by the talent of junior guard Karen Force. Force is averaging 19.5 points in league play—tied for third best with Altman—and had a career high 29 against Penn last weekend.
“Karen has been our most consistent player this season. I expect her to be a leader,” Smith said.
Cornell also has scoring and rebounding threats in Ossai and senior forward Lynell Davis. Like the Lions, the Big Red will be playing at home for the first time in several weeks.
“We are just happy to be home,” Smith said. “I hope we use our home court to our advantage...but we can not rely on that. Every Ivy League game is a battle, no matter the venue.”
Harvard may be undefeated in conference play thus far, but the Crimson must be aware that opposing teams will hold nothing back when the reigning League Champions come into town.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge of playing the top-ranked team in the league,” Butler said. “If you can’t get up for that, what else is there to get up for?”