Harvard women’s basketball will head to Philadelphia this weekend, with hopes of winning the second annual Ivy League Tournament, and punching its ticket to March Madness.
The Crimson (18-9, 10-4 Ivy) face the unenviable task of taking on hosts Pennsylvania on Saturday night, needing a win to advance to Sunday’s final. Despite Harvard’s overall youth, the team has experience at the Ancient Eight tournament, losing to Princeton in the first round of last year’s inaugural event.
“Knowing what to expect, knowing what the atmosphere is going to be like, is definitely going to be helpful,” sophomore guard Katie Benzan said. “Having that experience, and that first year under our belt is going to definitely make us more comfortable.”
Although the Crimson has not advanced to the NCAA tournament since 2007, this season marks the 20-year anniversary of No. 16 Harvard’s shocker of top-seeded Stanford, the only time an upset of that level has been accomplished in the men’s or women’s national tournament.
In order for the Crimson to win the divisional tournament and represent the Ivy League on the national stage, it must win two consecutive games away from the friendly confines of Cambridge.
“I’m glad we were there last year, and we know what it’s about,” said coach Kathy Delaney-Smith of the tournament.
The Quakers (20-7, 11-3) enter the weekend as the second seed, and will prove to be a stiff test for the third-seeded Crimson. Worse for the visitors is the fact that game will be played at the Palestra, a home court at which Penn tallied a 9-2 record on this season, including a 69-49 win over Harvard in early February.
“Last time we were at the Palestra, we just weren’t ourselves,” Benzan said. “This coming weekend we have a chance for redemption, and a chance to show that this tournament might be at their home court, but we can win this game.”
The Crimson split the two contests against the defending conference champions this season, with Harvard’s 55-52 win over Penn two weeks ago representing its first win over its Philadelphia-residing foes in five seasons.
“We haven’t played well against them for a number of years, given their height, given their system,” Delaney-Smith said. “It does feel like we’ve figured it out, it does feel as if the monkey is off of our back.”
Harvard, which entered last weekend with just one road win in Ancient Eight play, was able to complete a road sweep of Cornell and Columbia, despite a snow storm that delayed both games by a day.
“This past weekend was so weird and unusual because of the snow, and playing on Sunday,” Benzan said. “We just had to focus on what we were doing in the moment.”
The Crimson is eyeing the wins this weekend by an impressive combined 53 points as indicative of a change in seasons and results on the road.
“I was impressed by our maturity that’s really started to come out,” Delaney-Smith said. “The New York road trip to Cornell and Columbia is never easy.”
Crucial to Harvard’s chances will be limiting the play of senior center Michelle Nwokedi, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year. Nwokedi scored a season-high 30 points in Penn’s home romp over the Crimson, but was held to a mere six points on 3-13 shooting in the matchup at Lavietes Pavilion.
For Harvard to shut down Nwokedi, the interior presence of sophomore forward Jeannie Boehm and freshman forward Jadyn Bush will be essential. In last season’s Ivy League tournament loss to the Tigers, Boehm struggled from the field, shooting 3-11 and finishing with just seven points.
More importantly, Boehm and Bush will have to step up defensively to stop Nwokedi and center Eleah Parker. Boehm starred in the Crimson’s win over Penn in February, tallying nine rebounds and a season-high five blocks. The Winnetka, Ill., native’s defensive ferocity must once again be present if Harvard hopes to pull of the road upset.
Bush’s recent performances have offered reason to suspect that the rookie could break out in Philadelphia. In the Sunday’s road win over Columbia, she registered a career-high 21 points on an impressive 80 percent shooting from the field.
“My team is young still,” Delaney-Smith said. “There’s a maturity that has started to come, learning about ourselves, understanding that our challenges don’t have to let us lose.”
Another key element for Delaney-Smith’s team will be the performance of Benzan, whose steady play has been paramount to the team’s success. The Wellesley Mass., native struggled as a freshman at the tournament last season, scoring just eight points on 3-11 shooting.
“It’s a big stage, and I was so pumped up, my adrenaline was so high, I was playing too fast,” Benzan said. “We just have to remember that it’s a 40-minute game.”
Benzan has performed exceptionally well in conference play this season, shooting at exactly 50 percent from three-point territory, while recording over 14 points per game and knocking down 88 percent of her free throw opportunities.
The perimeter play of Benzan and junior guard and co-captain Madeline Raster will be crucial, especially considering the strong play of Quakers’ guard Anna Ross, who doggedly defended Benzan in both meetings this season. Ross helped hold Benzan to one of nine in shooting and one of seven from beyond the arc in the Crimson’s 55-52 home win.
Ultimately, Harvard’s chances will come down to whether or not the team can replicate its aggressive play from the past two weeks against the defending Ancient Eight champions on their home court.
With tough interior defense and sturdy outside shooting, Benzan and the rest of the team will have a chance to pull of the upset and advance to Sunday’s final, looking to book a ticket to its first Big Dance in 11 seasons.
“I don’t really care how many points or assists, or three-pointers I have,” Benzan said. “As long as the Harvard score is more than the Penn score, I’ll be happy. I just want to do everything in my power to make that happen.”
—Staff writer Amir Mamdani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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