The Harvard women’s basketball team has a lot to prove this Friday in its season-opener against North Dakota State. Ranked second in the Ivy League, the Crimson is coming off a winning 2011-12 season, going 18-12 and advancing to the second round of the WNIT, a feat no other Ancient Eight team has accomplished.
“Winning an NIT game was a huge deal for us,” co-captain forward Emma Golen said. “It was really exciting to make history and be a part of that. I think it was a real confidence booster to see how good we really can be. I think everyone worked really hard this summer and came back with even higher goals in mind.”
Last season Harvard upset an NCAA Sweet 16 team, St. John’s, and finished the season ranked second in the Ancient Eight for the fourth straight year with an Ivy record of 10-4.
Only losing two graduates this season, the Crimson’s roster has gained more than it lost with the arrival of three new freshmen and the return of sophomore center Temi Fagbenle, who spent a year in residency last season. Four starters are also returning to the court this season.
“We don’t have a quote unquote ‘young team,’” co-captain forward Miriam Rutzen said. “I think it’s pretty exciting that we have a veteran group…we have a solid group of upperclassmen to lead the way.”
Rutzen and Golen lead the team as co-captains for the 2012-2013 season. Last year, Rutzen ranked sixth in the conference in blocks per game, averaging 0.8. Golen’s three-point average of 40.4 percent came in at second place in the Ivy League and the senior averages 9.2 points per contest.
“Miriam and I have grown together every year,” Golen said. “Last year we communicated really well on and off the court, and we balance each other out…we’re reasonable, and we talk about things really well.”
Senior forward Victoria Lippert has racked up the most points for Harvard with 1,108 career points, placing her in 14th place in program history.
Fagbenle will also add a new dynamic to the team this season. The London native participated in the 2012 London Olympics for Great Britain. She appeared in all five games and started in three. Fagbenle is just the second women’s basketball student-athlete to be an Olympian in Ivy League history.
“Temi adds a lot of size, height-wise, at 6’4,” Golen said. “Last year that’s definitely something we were lacking….she’s a smart player with the ball and without the ball, and she’s such a presence inside. She’s going to attract a lot of attention, but she’s athletic enough to score even when she’s guarded.”
Although the team is coming off a strong season finish, Friday’s game against the Bison marks the beginning of a fresh start for the Crimson.
“I mean obviously it’s our first game, so we’re very excited to get on the road and see what we can do and take another team,” Rutzen said. “It’s fun to finally compete against someone else other than yourself in practice.”
North Dakota State has not been a regular opponent on the Crimson’s schedule in the past.
The Bison are ranked fourth in their league in the preseason poll with one of their key players, senior point guard Katie Birkel, returning from an ACL injury. In the 2010-2011 season, Birkel scored 384 points, averaging 13.2 points per game.
“They have a point guard who’s really quick and really fast,” Golen said. “She’s really good at off-ball screens, so we’ve been working on our ball-screen defense and just different ways to come at them defensively to take away what they like.”
Even though Birkel is returning to play this year, North Dakota State lost graduate Abby Plucker who scored 756 points over the past two seasons.
“I think one of the biggest areas that we are continuing to develop in and we’ve improved on a lot is that ability to make on court decisions with communication,” Rutzen said. “I think that will be an area that will be challenged especially playing a team we haven’t played previously in years past.”
The Harvard women’s basketball team is looking to excel not only in the Ivy League conference, but on the national level as well.
“Obviously we want to win an Ivy title and go to the NCAA tournament, and this team has confidence that if that happens we can potentially do some damage and go somewhere in the tournament,” Golen said. “We are pretty excited. We have high goals set this season.”