The Harvard women’s basketball team will face its strongest competition yet this year when it faces undefeated No. 14/13 Oklahoma State in the first round of the San Diego State-hosted Surf ‘n Slam Classic Friday evening.
The Crimson (7-3) will play its first game in more than two weeks after a 68-61 overtime loss to Boston University that snapped a four-game winning streak.
“Against BU, I thought we did some things well, but then we made some untimely errors,” Crimson coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said. “If we make some untimely errors against Oklahoma State, that won’t work because they’re that good.”
In the past month, senior Victoria Lippert, junior Christine Clark and sophomore Temi Fagbenle have each secured Ivy League Player of the Week honors while Harvard has utilized a team effort on defense to hold each of its last five opponents to fewer than 70 points.
“We have a lot of different weapons. A lot of people can step up at any time,” Lippert said. “I think when we play good defense and rebound, that’s what really secures victories for us, and over that streak we were doing that well.”
The undefeated Cowgirls (9-0), meanwhile, have turned in dominating performances as of late, including an 83-30 win against Vermont on Dec. 16. Save a three-point squeaker over Missouri State in November, Oklahoma State has defeated each of its opponents by more than 30 points this season.
“They’re very, very athletic. They run really well, and they rebound really well,” Delaney-Smith said of the program that won the WNIT last season.
The Cowgirls’ athleticism is perhaps most apparent in senior Toni Young, who leads Oklahoma State with 17.6 points per game and placed fifth in the high jump at the most recent NCAA Outdoor Championships. Sophomore Liz Donohue, junior Tiffany Bias and senior Lindsey Keller have also averaged well over ten points per game this season to drive a balanced attack.
“They’re a nationally-ranked team; we know they’re going to be good,” Lippert said. “I think what’s most important is how we play because I think when we play well—great defense, rebounding and execution on offense—I think we’re pretty difficult to stop. It’s really just going to come down to how we play as a team, and if we do that, then I think the outcome will take care of itself.”
“It’s a great chance to see who we are,” Delaney-Smith said. “We’ve done a nice job against some other pretty strong programs but fell a bit short, so this is our chance to not fall short.”
In its only other matchup this year against a team that has earned votes in national Top 25 polls, the Crimson led Michigan at times but eventually lost, 72-61.
San Diego State and Southern Methodist University will also compete for the Surf ‘n Slam title this week. Depending on Friday’s result, Harvard will face either the Aztecs or the Mustangs on Sunday.
“I guess I would say that this is a very athletic tournament,” Delaney-Smith said. “Our sense from watching all of them is that all four teams, including ourselves, are pretty athletic. We all run well. We’ve played those kinds of teams a number of times already, so we feel we’re well-prepared.”
Harvard did not hold team practices from Dec. 21-25. Most of the Crimson’s players arrived in San Diego on Wednesday and Delaney-Smith doubts that her team will be rusty from the break.
“This is a particularly motivated team,” Delaney-Smith said. “Even when they’re disappointed, they come back the next day and their work effort is noticeable and terrific. And when we send them home for five days, they’re going to work hard at home.”