Last season, the Harvard women’s basketball team was one of three co-champions of the Ivy League, but missed out on postseason tournament play when it fell to Dartmouth in a league playoff. Fast forward a year later, and the Crimson has fallen short of its third straight Ancient Eight crown after a crushing 64-51 loss to the Big Green last Tuesday in Hanover.
But somehow, its season continues—Harvard (19-9, 11-3 Ivy) will face St. John’s (17-14, 4-12 Big East) in the first round of the postseason National Invitational Tournament (NIT) tonight in Queens, N.Y. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
How does Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith figure?
“It’s different,” she said. “The Ivy title is so important to us, and we had to get over that disappointment. But they’re over that. Once they realized that the NIT is a tremendous national tournament, we got very excited about it. We’ve moved on and reprioritized.”
After the Dartmouth loss, the team took a few days off from practice to leave its frustration behind. Since then, it’s had a week of intense, competitive practices.
“We’re competing and working hard now to win a different championship, the NIT,” senior forward Katie Rollins said. “We’re bringing the same high standard.”
With the Ivy League in the rearview mirror, the Crimson is now wondering how it will match up against the mysterious Red Storm. Before beginning league play, St. John’s won 13 of its first 14 games and appeared ready to make a statement on the national stage. But competition in the powerhouse Big East conference caught up to the Red Storm, which struggled to a 4-12 league mark. Most recently, St. John’s beat Syracuse in its first-round game in the postseason Big East tournament, but fell in the next round to Notre Dame—now a seven-seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Red Storm’s 35-point win over Dartmouth—albeit in November—can give the Crimson one idea of how tonight’s matchup might go. But the Crimson’s own strong non-conference play, which included wins over U.C. Santa Barbara (an NCAA Tournament team) and Central Connecticut State and Vermont (both NIT teams), has the team believing that it can make a game of it in Queens.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how St. John’s views us,” Delaney-Smith said. “I wonder if they are looking past us. It’d be interesting to be a fly on their locker room wall.”
The Red Storm will greet its host from Cambridge with a fast-paced, transition-oriented attack. The squad uses a stifling press to force and convert off of turnovers. It boasts three scorers in double figures, led by senior guard Monique McLean and her 17.3 points per game. Freshman forward Da’Shena Stevens, the Big East Rookie of the Year, checks in with 11.7 points and a team-leading 6.5 rebounds—she’ll have the attention of the Crimson’s frontcourt corps.
Those Harvard forwards—Rollins and sophomores Emma Markley and Jackie Alemany—will have something to prove after being severely outmuscled in last week’s Dartmouth loss. Play in the post was all Big Green, which ended the game with a 51-27 advantage on the glass (including 20 offensive rebounds).
“St. John’s is, man-for-man, quicker than us and more athletic than us,” Rollins said. “It’s going to take a team of five on the court and a full one-through-10 to beat them.”
While frontcourt play was one difference-maker in the Dartmouth loss, the Crimson will need a strong performance from its guards if it wants to hang with St. John’s. Co-captain Emily Tay—who last week was named to her third consecutive All-Ivy First Team—was all but absent last weekend in Hanover (seven points, four turnovers). Tay’s poise will be equally important as her scoring:she and backcourt mate Brogan Berry, this year’s Ivy Rookie of the Year, will have to keep turnovers low against the full and half-court pressure that the Red Storm will bring from the opening tip.
Harvard has a notion to pull the upset in the first round and continue on to face Hartford in Connecticut on Sunday. But regardless of how deep it goes into the tournament, the team is grateful for the chance to play another day.
“At first, it was okay for us to just be bummed,” Rollins said. “Our coaches said, ‘You have a chance to make it up. You have a chance to play with your teammates again and go on another trip.’ That’s kind of how we all looked at it.”
“Our seniors have had four great years, and we want to make sure they go out on a positive note,” Delaney-Smith said. “It’s great to be able to extend the season and keep going. I like the way we’re playing.”
—Staff writer Emily W. Cunningham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.