The Harvard women’s basketball team learned late on Monday night that it will face the Hawks of the University of Hartford in the first round of the WNIT tournament on Thursday night in West Hartford, Conn.
The Crimson earned its spot in the WNIT by securing second place in the Ivy League with a resounding 71-26 win against Columbia.
The Hawks (21-11, 10-6 America East) have been a consistently high-caliber team, traveling to the postseason in each of the last nine seasons, and winning their previous meeting with the Crimson, 72-61, last year. They are led by senior forward Nikkia Smith in both points and rebounds per game, with 10.6 and 5.3, respectively.
“Hartford is a perennially strong team,” Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said. “[Hartford coach] Jen Rizzotti is a great coach…but I think we match up well, and I’m looking forward to it.”
“[Smith] is a very talented player,” the coach added. “We played them last year, and they have all the same players back from last year’s game. We played them close, [but] they won. We are a pretty different team now, [while] they are a very veteran team. They have a bunch of seniors and are probably disappointed that they did not make the NCAA’s.”
Hartford lost in the finals of the America East Championship to Albany, who will fill the AEC’s spot at the NCAA tournament while the Hawks go to the WNIT.
Harvard (20-8, 11-3 Ivy) is coming off an impressive seven-game winning streak to end the season, consisting of wins against Yale, Penn, and Ivy League champion Princeton. The Crimson will look to ride that momentum into West Hartford.
“We need to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” said junior guard Christine Clark, who is Harvard’s leading scorer. “We need to play great defense, contain them on rebounding, and offensively keep having the great chemistry that we’ve had recently.”
This is Harvard’s fourth time in the WNIT out of the last five years. Last year, Harvard became the first member of the Ivy League to win a game in the WNIT with a 73-71 victory over Hofstra.
“I hope [winning a tournament game] helps, because we have enough returning players that that matters,” Delaney-Smith said. “I think it matters a lot that they were in that environment and they know what it is going to be like. I think it will help us.”
In addition to Clark, the Crimson is led by senior guard Victoria Lippert and sophomore forward Temi Fagbenle. The three of them average 15.7, 13.5, and 12.3 points per game, respectively, each individually more than Hartford’s leader in Smith. Fagbenle leads the team in rebounding as well with 7.8 per game, also more than the Hartford-leading Smith.
“They are going to have to find a way to stop our inside game,” Delaney-Smith said. “I think Temi [Fagbenle] should be a force.”
This game features two teams with very contrasting styles and tempos. Harvard scores 68 points per game and allows 62, whereas Hartford scores 58 and allows 54.
“They are a very strong defensive team,” Delaney Smith said. “They create a lot of turnovers, they create a lot of steals…. I think we need to take care of the ball. They are very physical and they are very active in the passing lanes.”
This is not the first time that Harvard has played a strong defensive team. Delaney-Smith emphasized that the Crimson has encountered this type of team in Yale and Columbia during the regular season, and came out on top in both series.
“We feel that we are ready for that kind of a defensive team,” Delaney-Smith said. “[We are] more ready than we were last year.”
This season, Harvard is 11-0 at home but has struggled on the road. All six of the team’s losses were away. Additionally, against the seven teams that the Crimson played in each team’s arena, Harvard averaged a point differential 14 points higher at Lavietes Pavillion than on the opponent’s court.
“We’ve won enough road games that being on the road doesn’t make me nervous,” Delaney-Smith said. “They have an advantage, but we’ll step up for that.”
The winner of the Harvard-Hartford game will challenge the winner of a Drexel-Iona matchup that is also occurring on Thursday night. The second-round game will take place at some point this coming weekend.
“I think that it is a great matchup for us,” Clark said, “We have a great opportunity to win and move on further in the tournament.”