Change may be tough to adjust to, but it can be equally as exciting. And this weekend will certainly provide no lack of intrigue as the Harvard women’s basketball team participates in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament at the Palestra in Philadelphia.
The winner of “Ivy Madness,” as it’s been dubbed, will get automatic qualification to the NCAA Tournament; in previous seasons, the regular season Ancient Eight champion was that bid’s recipient. As such, the Crimson (20-7, 8-6 Ivy) get a chance to wipe the slate clean and earn its way into March Madness for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign.
“The good thing about this tournament is that it’s a clean slate,” said freshman point guard Katie Benzan, recently named to the First-Team All-Ivy roster. “No matter how poorly or how well we did this season, everyone has to win two games against two really good teams.”
Harvard, the third seed, will face Princeton on Saturday night after watching Penn and Brown battle in the other semifinal. The Tigers (15-12, 9-5) finished second in conference play for the second consecutive year, defeating the Crimson twice on the way there.
In February’s matchup in New Jersey, the hosts needed overtime to overcome Harvard, 63-58. This past weekend, Princeton staved off a furious Crimson rally to hold on, 64-60, at Lavietes Pavilion. There is no doubt that Saturday’s game will be similarly competitive.
“It doesn’t matter that we lost,” coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said. “You could look at it as beating a team three times could be difficult. I’ve always felt that.”
Neither team comes into the tournament on a high note. The Tigers lost three of their last four games, while Harvard has lost four of its past five after a program-record 16-game win streak earlier in the season. During that stretch, the Crimson has shot just 32.6 percent from the field and 27.5 percent from beyond the arc, down from 40.8 and 33.5 percent respectively in the first 22 games.
Despite her team’s struggles to put the ball in the basket, however, Coach Delaney-Smith wasn’t worried about her players’ confidence heading into the weekend. She’s more concerned with getting back to the basics.
“I will point to basketball specific weaknesses, like boxing out and fundamentals that we were getting away with and not growing in those fundamentals,” Delaney-Smith said. “These are fundamentals we have control over, it’s not putting the ball in the basket. We rush our execution; we don’t let each other use their skill set. We don’t set good enough screens or use good enough screens.”
Harvard’s depth was its greatest asset early in the season, but over the past few weeks the offense has grown reliant on a few key players. Benzan has been particularly effective, while captain Destiny Nunley and sophomore guard Madeline Raster are key cogs in the offense as well. Delaney-Smith will need those two, freshman center Jeannie Boehm, and the remainder of the rotation to be at its best this weekend.
The Tigers have qualified for the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons and have two seniors and a junior among their leaders in minutes played. Forward Leslie Robinson is the main inside threat, averaging 10.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game while making 49.8 percent of her field goals.
Despite all that experience, Princeton’s top performer this season has been freshman Bella Alarie, a 6-foot-4 ‘small’ forward who was recently named Ivy Rookie of the Year. A solid outside shooter with the size to take on smaller defenders and the speed to get by forwards, Alarie is averaging 12.6 points, 1.7 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game.
Ultimately, the tournament will be a new experience for the entire squad and one that they will likely remember for the remainder of their careers. The opportunity to use the regular season as a protracted qualifier has given the Crimson an opportunity to work through some of its problems and build resilience, something that will be invaluable this weekend.
“We all are dying for Saturday at 6:30,” Benzan said. “We all just want to play and win and we’re all working hard; we just really want to win this time.”