Following one of the most disappointing seasons in recent Harvard memory, the women’s basketball team bounced back in tremendous fashion to earn the Ivy championship.
Led by Ivy Player of the Year, captain, and center Reka Cserny, the Crimson posted a 20-8 record and went 12-2 in league play. Harvard continued its intense rivalry with Dartmouth and felled the Big Green to grab a share of the Ivy title in one of the best games of basketball ever contested at Lavietes Pavilion.
The Crimson began its season with a pair of wins, then headed west for two games in southern California. After dispatching San Jose State, Harvard ran into a tougher opponent in USC and faced its first loss. The Crimson compensated by running over Lafayette, but then fell to Northeastern and went 1-2 over its next three.
“I think that the first part of the season was challenging for everyone,” junior forward Maureen McCaffery said. “We were coming off of a disappointing season last year and needed to come together and adopt a new attitude. Building team chemistry was a top priorities at the beginning of our season. ”
Harvard closed the out-of-league portion of its schedule by going 3-1, losing to national power Old Dominion.
For its first Ivy opponent, the Crimson would square off against Dartmouth, the squad picked to finish atop the league in preseason polls.
In Hanover, Harvard fell behind by 19 midway through the first half, but managed to claw back to knot the score at 62 and send the game into overtime. The Big Green edged the Crimson in the extra period, taking the game 73-70 and knocking Harvard off in the league opener for the second consecutive year.
“When we dropped our first game to Dartmouth, it seemed like we were going to crumble,” senior guard Katie Murphy said. “At that point, we thought we were invincible, and the Dartmouth game brought us back to reality. From that point on, we definitely built momentum. We could still win the league if we won the rest of our games.”
The Crimson was well on its way to doing just that, capturing four in a row over Cornell, Columbia, Penn, and Princeton. But when Brown came to town, the Bears worked Harvard over 78-63.
With two league losses, Harvard could not afford to drop another and still hope to be called Ivy champions at season’s end.
Pulling together, the Crimson reeled off four consecutive wins, and then headed to Providence for a rematch with the Bears.
Brown packed the house, but the raucous crowd of over 2,000 couldn’t seal a victory for the home team as Harvard prevailed 77-69. Back in the title race in earnest, the Crimson made short work of Princeton and Penn, topping each team by more than 20 points.
“We got better as a team almost every game,” Cserny said. “On the defensive end, we communicated better which helped us have a consistent team defense the entire year. On the other end, our offense got smoother as we learned how to take advantage of everyone’s strength and skills.”
One game remained for Harvard—a showdown with the Big Green in both teams’ season finale. Dartmouth had passed through its Ivy schedule up to that point suffering only one blow—a loss at Brown—and had staked its claim to at least a piece of the title. The Crimson could seize a piece of its own with a win.
Again Harvard went down big midway through the second half, this time by 15. And again the Crimson launched a furious comeback. This time though, the Harvard quintet had its student body behind it and felled the Big Green 70-67 in a thrilling ending that few will soon forget.
“I have never seen the Harvard student body come together in support of our sports teams like that night,” McCaffery said. “The energy in the gym was really incredible. I know we all feel so lucky to have had that experience.”
The victory granted the Crimson a share of the Ivy title, its third in four years and ninth overall.
With both teams sporting identical 12-2 records and splitting the season series, a one-game playoff was arranged at Brown’s Pizzitola Center to decide who would receive the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Dartmouth yet again built up a sizeable lead, but this time there would be no improbable comeback. Harvard closed its season with the 75-61 loss.
Despite not reaching postseason play, the Crimson accomplished its greatest goal—taking one game at a time and snagging an Ivy championship on the way.
—Staff writer J. Patrick Coyne can be reached at email@example.com.