Down by one with six seconds left on the game clock, the seniors on the Harvard women’s basketball team watched their final moments in a Crimson uniform tick away.
After a hard-fought battle with Iona in the first round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament that saw the Gaels fight back from a double-digit deficit to go ahead in the final seconds, Harvard coach Kathy Delaney-Smith made the decision to put the ball—and the game—in co-captain Christine Clark’s hands.
Clark, whose foul had given Iona the free throw it needed to take a one-point advantage, redeemed herself as the clock counted down. Moments after Gaels guard Aleesha Powell sunk the and-one attempt, the veteran drove down the length of the court, weaved past every Iona defender, and hit an uncontested layup.
“There were six seconds left, and this could be the last six seconds of my college career,” Clark said. “[After the layup], I’m just more in a state of relief that we won rather than realizing that I just did something pretty cool. Everybody was celebrating and super excited, and I’m just standing there trying to breathe because I thought I was going to be the reason we lost.”
The 90-89 victory over Iona sent Harvard (22-8, 11-3 Ivy) into the second round of the WNIT for the third consecutive year, capping a season in which the squad accomplished something it had not done since 2009 in winning at Jadwin Gymnasium against Princeton, who was the Ivy League champion for the past five years.
Princeton’s home court had long been a near-impossible place to win for the Crimson, but in the teams’ first matchup of the season, Clark shook off an early-season injury to post 25 points en route to a 78-68 victory over the Tigers. Junior forward Temi Fagbenle posted a double-double in the victory, adding 13 points and 13 rebounds as Harvard dominated Princeton on the glass to the tune of 15 offensive reboun ds.
“That was the highlight of the year, absolutely,” Clark said. “That win was monumental...just because we’d come in second place to them for three consecutive years and never beaten them. That win put us on top, put us in the number one spot in the Ivy League.”
But a day later, Harvard gave up its claim atop the conference, posting its lowest shooting percentage of the season at Penn.
The Quakers, who eventually took home the title, hit just 36.4 percent of its shots, but the Crimson made only 18.3 percent of its attempts, scoring 34 points on the night.
Hopes of winning the championship were dashed a few weeks later, when the Crimson hosted Penn and Princeton at home. Losses to both dropped the Crimson to third in the Ivy League, out of reach of automatic bids to the NCAA tournament and WNIT.
But Delaney-Smith’s squad won the remainder of its regular season games, and the team’s performance did the trick—on Selection Monday, the Crimson received an at-large bid to the WNIT, marking its third consecutive trip to the tournament and the first time any Ancient Eight team earned an at-large bid to the WNIT outside.
An injury-depleted Crimson squad fell to Rutgers in the second round of the WNIT, 63-52, marking the end of a season in which the team fell short of its most important goal—winning an Ivy League championship.
The team has not won the title since the 2008 squad split the title with Cornell and Dartmouth.
“I think all teams have [injuries], we have an extraordinary amount of sort of chronic injuries that need to be managed,” Delaney-Smith said. “That always takes its toll, but we were good enough and deep enough that we should have been able to reach our ultimate goal of winning the title.”
Despite the disappointments, the season was marked by a number of individual and team accomplishments, including Delaney-Smith’s 515th career victory, a stat that makes the longtime Harvard coach the all-time winningest Ivy League basketball head coach. The 22 wins of the squad were the most of any of Delaney-Smith’s Harvard teams.
On the defensive end of the floor, the team was led by senior guards Melissa Mullins and Jasmine Evans. The teammates combined for 2.5 steals a game, harassing opponents on the perimeter. Behind Mullins and Evans, Fagbenle was a force inside, leading all Ivy League players by averaging 9.3 rebounds per game during conference play.
In her final season playing at Lavietes Pavilion, Clark totaled 446 points to become the fourth all-time leading scorer in program history with 1,711 points. The senior, who has garnered numerous accolades during her time in a Crimson uniform, plans to play abroad after graduation.
“Clarkie, from the day she stepped on Harvard[‘s campus], was a role model for her work ethic, she’ll go through the walls for you,” Delaney-Smith said. “She’s an incredibly intense competitor—a talented, hardworking, player. And because of that, she broke a lot of records and was one of the best to wear the uniform she’s in.”
—Staff writer Samantha Lin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Linsamnity.