After finishing above .500 in non-conference play for the first time since the 2004-2005 campaign, the Crimson (7-7, 0-1 Ivy) saw that the road to its third straight league title would be anything but a breeze. Co-Ivy champion Dartmouth (4-9, 1-0 Ivy), which knocked Harvard out of postseason play last year, outmuscled the Crimson en route to a 59-55 win Saturday afternoon at Lavietes Pavilion.
For the second year in a row, the Big Green beat Harvard in the league opener in Cambridge and began the dogfight that begins at the season’s tipoff and often runs until the final buzzer. Dartmouth led by as many as 10 points in the second half before the Crimson whittled the deficit down to three with 12 seconds to play.
But Harvard was unable to get a shot off on its final possession, turning over both the ball and the game on an errant pass attempt.
“It’s a great lesson for us to learn,” co-captain Niki Finelli said. “We can’t take anything for granted from now on.”
Offense on the block was the difference-maker Saturday, when a physical Big Green frontcourt held Crimson forwards senior Katie Rollins and sophomore Emma Markley in check. Rollins chipped in a solid eight points and six boards, but Markley, the team’s leading scorer at 14 points a contest, shot just 1-for-4 from the field for two points. Dartmouth center Darcy Rose and sisters Brittney and Margaret Smith doubled the forwards on every touch.
“Emma and Katie probably had the worst games of their careers,” Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said. “[Dartmouth] doubled them early—that’s a great strategy, but they outworked us.”
“It’s tough passing out of a double or triple team and as a team, we didn’t do a great job of helping [the forwards] out and making ourselves open,” Finelli added. “It was frustrating because they really took us out of our game. We had to adjust the way we played.”
It didn’t help that co-captain Emily Tay, normally the team’s sparkplug on offense, was limited by illness. Tay started the game and turned in impressive numbers—12 points on 5-for-9 shooting from the floor—but was not her playmaking self (no assists, two turnovers).
“We all knew we had to step up and play without her, and I think we did step into our roles,” said freshman point guard Brogan Berry. “Just not well enough to win the game.”
Delaney-Smith compared her team’s play without its star to its performance last month in California, when Finelli missed a game due to illness.
“Emotionally, the same thing happened to us today,” Delaney-Smith said. “Everyone panicked. That doesn’t need to happen.”
Berry did her part in her first taste of Ivy play, turning in 20 points on 6-for-12 shooting from the field (including 4-for-6 from three-point range).
The rookie ran the point with poise during the Crimson’s comeback attempt, but came up empty-handed on Harvard’s final possession when Rose shot the lane on her pass and came away with it as time wound down.
“We had designed the play and it just kind of broke down,” Berry said. “It was an unlucky pass when they got in the lane.”
“It doesn’t really mean anything except that it was one play in the game of forty minutes,” Finelli said of the final possession. “It doesn’t dictate a win or loss. [Berry] should keep doing what she’s doing.”
“What she’s doing” included carrying the Crimson’s stagnant offense early on in the game, scoring seven of Harvard’s first nine points. Neither Harvard nor the Big Green looked sharp offensively, and the teams traded turnovers and missed jumpers in the opening minutes. At the 15-minute mark, the score was just 4-0 in favor of Dartmouth; at halftime, it was 20-19, with Harvard barely the better of two stalling attacks.
The good news for the Crimson was that star Big Green guard Koren Schram shot just 1-for-10 for two points in the first half, with Berry allowing her few good looks at the basket.
The bad news?
Schram caught fire after the break, hitting 4-for-7 from the floor and winding up with 17 points in the game.
Brittney Smith complemented a physical defensive effort down low with a double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds). Smith was at perhaps her most aggressive in the final minute, when she and Crimson forward Jackie Alemany received double technical fouls and were separated after jockeying for position on an inbounds play.
“Our focus was to shut them down,” Finelli said, referring to Schram and Smith. “But I think we lost sight of that in the second half, especially when things got a little tighter in terms of scoring. Those breakdowns really hurt us.”
The Crimson now begins its break for final exams before continuing on the Ivy play on the road Jan. 30 at Penn (7 p.m. tipoff) and Jan. 31 at Princeton (6 p.m. tipoff).
—Staff writer Emily W. Cunningham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.