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WORCESTER--With 4:36 left in the first half of the Harvard women's basketball game against La Salle Saturday night, freshman guard Breehan Kelley lofted a pass to sophomore point guard Jen Monti.
But the pass was too high for the 5'6 Monti to handle as it bounced out of bounds for a turnover, and the play was indicative of a problem plaguing the Crimson over the weekend.
Even though a lot of things went right in Harvard's two games at the ECAC Holiday Festival, and even though the team showed signs of the talent that helped it beat Ohio State earlier this season, the Crimson lost its cool when the games began to heat up.
Getting careless as Holy Cross and La Salle applied defensive and offensive pressure, Harvard lost control of basketball fundamentals.
Harvard's tendency to break down gave Holy Cross a win on Friday night and almost gave La Salle a win the next day in the consolation game of the tournament.
In its 89-61 loss to Holy Cross, the Crimson was leading by one point with 11:46 left in the game following a three-pointer by Kelley before the team completely fell apart as the Crusaders went on a 38-9 run the rest of the way.
It was a combination of inexperience and fatigue that seemed to keep the team from playing at its top level.
And at least in part because of these factors, the Crimson's play was inconsistent--while some of the more complex parts of its triangle offense came together, some of the basics such as passing and lay-up shooting fell by the wayside.
Admittedly, the atmosphere was tough in the Hart Center for the Holy Cross game. A hometown crowd of 1,284 competed with the school band and loudspeakers blaring dance music to cheer on the home team, causing a mild roar on the court level. Cheerleaders and an annoying Holy Cross "crusader" danced in front of Harvard's players when they were attempting free throws, adding to the distractions.
"I have talented freshmen," Harvard Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said. "It's just that they're freshmen and so you're not always able to tell how they are going to handle a big situation, a crowd of 1,200 screaming and yelling or a veteran team that can connect inside-outside and everywhere else."
And Delaney-Smith played the freshmen early and often in both games.
The few older players on the team seemed tired, unable to keep their steam up. Captain Laela Sturdy--the leading scorer in last weekend's win against Sacred Heart--played just 20 minutes Friday. Junior center Melissa Johnson and senior guard Courtney Egelhoff played for 19 and 18 minutes, respectively, in Johnson's case partly because she picked up two fouls in the first four minutes.
Freshmen Kate Ides and Sarah Johnson and sophomore Lindsay Ryba filled in the gaps, all playing for more than 10 minutes in the post positions. Kelley was on the floor for 28 minutes, going 3-of-4 from the three-point line, but costing the team six crucial turnovers.
Kelley came in to take some of the pressure off Monti, the Crimson's primary ball-handler and only true point guard, but Holy Cross' aggressive defenders pressured Kelley into stopping her dribble early and forcing passes where they shouldn't have gone. Of course, it was easy to spot her mistakes because she was often entrusted with the ball.
Against La Salle, a weaker opponent, the Crimson often seemed to have the game in the bag. With 14:58 left in the second half and Harvard up 10, Kelley made a beautiful play. On a pass from Sturdy, she swished a hook shot from the baseline that knotted the score at 54-42.
It was at times like this, with a solid lead, that the Crimson showed its stuff. But when the players got tired, careless errors cost them.
With 1:30 left in the first half, junior Carrie Larkworthy completed a pass to Kelley, who was wide open under the basket. Kelley missed the easy lay-in, an outcome that seemed inconsistent for a player who successfully made 4-of-6 from the three-point line over the weekend.
At 6:06 in the second half, Sturdy spotted up for a wide-open jump shot but ended up shooting an air ball. Delaney-Smith took her out almost immediately for a two-minute rest.
Melissa Johnson missed an easy jump shot, her ball sailing right over the basket, with 2:52 left to play and with Harvard up by just seven points.
But this isn't to say that the Crimson was completely error-prone.
When the game came down to the wire, it was sophomore forward Katie Gates who rescued the Crimson with solid, uncomplicated plays.
She hit a three-pointer with 3:23 left to play, to hold off a surging La Salle team and bring the score to 67-63. She also had a crucial rebound in the last minute to keep the ball out of the Explorers' hands.
Gates at times seemed to be the only player completely on top of her game.
The rest of her teammates will need to take cues from her command of the fundamentals if they are to use their talent effectively in Harvard's tough games to come.
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