It looked like Harvard women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith had hit it the jackpot in November 2010 when she signed Temi Fagbenle, the Crimson’s first top-20 recruit in recent memory.
Only a year later, Delaney-Smith found out that her new recruit would be ineligible to play her freshman season in a Harvard jersey. According to the NCAA, Fagbenle, who came to the United States after her sophomore year of high school, stayed at Blair Academy in New Jersey for an extra year for athletic rather than academic purposes, making her eligible for only three years of college basketball.
But Fagbenle, Blair Academy, and Delaney-Smith tell a different story, calling her choice an academic decision. They also question the NCAA’s decision to use the GSCE exam, comparable to the PSAT, to determine her graduation date, meaning that Fagbenle can only suit up for the Crimson once she’s a sophomore.
“The NCAA is trying to get a handle on players coming from Europe,” Delaney-Smith says. “As you can imagine, a lot of those players do abuse the system and stay back to gain an athletic advantage.”
“[Temi] realized that the academics were different in both countries and so Blair Academy suggested she repeat her junior year because of academics,” Delaney-Smith continues. “At that time the NCAA instituted a rule to try to control everything and arbitrarily chose the GSCE as her graduation date. … That’s the wrong test to choose, and we put in a waiver and we were denied the waiver. It’s very wrong.”
Fagbenle feels particular anger at the decision because of her family’s long-standing prioritizing of academics over athletics, one of her main reasons for choosing Harvard.
“I thought it would be perfect for me both academically and athletically,” Fagbenle says. “Academics is always the focus for me and my family, so what better place than Harvard, right?”
For the Crimson, Fagbenle’s potential benching leaves a gap in the starting rotation.
“Temi is an impact player flat out,” Delaney-Smith says. “Temi can step on the floor and impact the game immediately. She’s probably in the top five of any college player I’ve ever coached right now. We have a whole system we’re using because she’s at the core of it.”
While Harvard tries to change the NCAA’s mind, Fagbenle continues to practice with the team. If the NCAA does not overturn its decision, Fagbenle would sit in residence for a year, training with the team and starting her sophomore season as a true sophomore.
“I wasn’t happy obviously,” Fagbenle says. “But it is what it is. Everything happens for a reason, so hopefully we can get this thing sorted out as soon as possible because I hate sitting on the bench.”
While Fagbenle lays in wait, the rest of her class is working to pick up the slack as Harvard deals with an unusual amount of injuries this preseason.
Leading the charge for the freshmen class will be guard Ali Curtis from Indiana, who grew up as a coach’s daughter and averaged 16 points per game in her senior season.
“She’s very Broganesque,” Delaney-Smith said. “She has a very good shot, she’s tough as nails, she’s very unselfish, she’s a coach’s daughter, and she shows all the same signs that [co-captain] Brogan [Berry] showed as a freshman.”
Also likely to see playing time this season is New Jersey resident Erin McDonell, whose 1529 career points led her high school to its first-ever state championship at the beginning of 2011.