Eight Years Later, Crimson Reflects on Historic Tournament Upset

The time? 1998. The place? Palo Alto, California.

No one ever considered the possibility. A number-one seed losing to a 16-seed? The very thought was laughable. Never in the then 16-year history of the tournament had such a feat been accomplished.

The Harvard women’s basketball team stunned the nation in one of the greatest moments in collegiate sports when, playing at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion, the Crimson entered collegiate history by defeating number-one seed Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. ESPN recently earmarked the accomplishment as sixth in its top 25 greatest moments in NCAA Tournament history. The Crimson’s 71-67 victory marks the only instance, in either men’s or women’s tournament history, that a sixteenth seed eliminated a number one seed.

“No one thought that we could do this except us, and I’m extremely proud of what our team was able to accomplish,” coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said after the game. “And it means as much for the Ivy League as it does for Harvard. Our League has had some great athletes and our top team has always been competitive in the NCAAs.”

Nearly 10 years later, history seems poised to repeat itself as the Crimson put on their dancing shoes for only the sixth time in the program’s history. The numbers may be slightly changed this time around, but the odds are similarly stacked against Harvard. On Monday, the Selection Committee assigned Harvard a number two seed and matched it with defending national champion Maryland. Once again, it appears that the women are in for a David-versus-Goliath battle. But if the dramatic upset serves as proof, the women have shown already that counting them out early on is a definite mistake.

The Crimson can go about starting a new trend in Harvard basketball: accomplishing the impossible as a team tradition.

“You know we’re in a win-win situation. We’re not supposed to win, they’re not even going to talk about us,” Delaney-Smith said, her words eerily reminiscent of years past. “They’re going to be talking about who’s in the brackets.”

It’s as if the team lives for these moments. With nothing to lose, the Crimson can play without the pressure of the spotlight shining squarely on them.

But toppling the Terrapins will be no easy task. The defending champions returned all five starters from last year’s squad and posted a more-than-respectable 27-5 record this season. The women’s Atlantic Coast Conference, of which Maryland is a member, contains two of the number one seeds in the tournament. The Terrapins also have a low-post threat in junior Crystal Langhorn, who averages a team high 15.1 points per game and shoots an impressive 72.1 percent from the field.

But Harvard did not progress this far for nothing: history has shown that the Crimson can do it and the players themselves know they have the talent to overcome any team.

“We work just as hard as they do, and we think we can play with them,” co-captain Christiana Lackner said.

The stage is definitely set for the impossible to happen again. The two teams will square off at the Harford Civic Center in Hartford, Conn., located just a short drive away from Cambridge. Harvard could possibly have a slight home-court advantage on Sunday, a privilege the Crimson has yet to enjoy in any of its trips to the Big Dance.

“Hartford was one of the places that we really wanted to go because it’s so close, so hopefully we’ll have a lot fans in the building,” junior Lindsay Hallion said.

Empowered by the friendly crowd, inspired by their predecessors, and motivated by their underdog status, the players have all the key ingredients to come away with another spectacular triumph.

—Staff writer Vincent R. Oletu can be reached at voletu@fas.harvard.edu.

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