The Harvard women’s basketball team has moved on from celebrating its Ivy championship. The 13th-seeded Crimson left yesterday for its NCAA tournament first round matchup tomorrow against North Carolina, and pulling off the second first-round upset in school history is now the focus. It’s business as usual—again.
“We’re approaching it the same way,” said senior guard Jenn Monti. “You work hard. You play hard. That’s all.”
When the tournament announcement came last Sunday, Monti admitted she could not name a single player on the Tar Heel team. The names of Tar Heel guards Coretta Brown, Nikki Teasley and 6’6 center Candace Sutton are now rolling off Harvard’s tounges.
The word is that if North Carolina merely shows up and plays its best, Harvard has no chance to win. Is it that simple?
Every upset immediately comes with the assumption that the favorite did not play to its potential. But often the classification as an upset is simply a misjudgement of the team’s relative levels of talent and intensity.
In Harvard’s case, it’s nontrivial to judge what it will do against nationally-ranked competition in March. It’s true that the Crimson lost three road games to tournament teams on the road in the pre-Ivy season, but Harvard has clearly improved over the course of the Ivy season—to the point where Harvard Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith could honestly say that its biggest weakness was blowing leads. The Crimson’s biggest developments came on the defensive end.
The Tar Heels have plenty of pretty statistics to back up their claim to victory. They’ve won 67 of their last 68 nonconference home games and 14 of 15 home NCAA games all-time.
But Stanford had even better home numbers when Harvard beat the top-seeded Cardinal in 1998. And most of those North Carolina numbers came from Tar Heel teams far superior to the one Harvard is playing tomorrow. That makes Harvard’s 71-67 upset of Stanford in 1998 and Dartmouth’s 70-66 near-miss against defending champion Purdue in 2000 better indicators of how Harvard will perform tomorrow than years of North Carolina history.
Though the Tar Heels may not be top national championship contenders anymore, they’re still better than any team Harvard has faced this season.
The Crimson is used to having the height advantage in the Ivy League—not so against North Carolina, with Sutton underneath.
With Brown and Teasley, North Carolina has two players who can hit from outside at a rate of just under 40 percent. Brown leads the team in scoring at 16.6 points per game. Teasley is second with 15.8 ppg and leads the team in assists. Her return from a year off is easily the biggest reason why the Tar Heels went from a .500 team last season to 2002 tournament hosts.
But Brown and Teasley are the only Tar Heels who are shooting above 30 percent from three-point land. And freshman Leah Metcalf, North Carolina’s next-best three-point threat at 28 percent, has not been at 100 percent in recent weeks. Her numbers dropped in the ACC final against Duke after a shoulder strain the day before, and the whole team suffered because of it.
Harvard has six 30-percent three point shooters of its own, and all of them are regulars. And some players’ three-point shooting numbers—Ivy Player of the Year Hana Peljto’s in particular—are down as of late, with plenty of room for improvement. That makes Peljto’s 20.4 ppg an understatement of her ability.
In terms of the center matchup, North Carolina may have the taller player in Sutton, but 6’3 Harvard freshman Reka Cserny is the more skilled player. Cserny’s shooting numbers are far better than Sutton’s, especially from the line, where Cserny can hit 85.4 percent and Sutton can only manage 51 percent. Sutton doesn’t shoot threes; Cserny, shockingly, is Harvard’s most accurate three-point shooter this season.
Defensively, Cserny makes up for height disadvantage with her dexterity. While Sutton overmatches Cserny 61-26 in blocked shots this season, Cserny beats Sutton 63-26 in steals—a near reflection.
Another advantage Harvard has is discipline. Cserny and Peljto have kept out of foul trouble after some struggles early in the season. The two have fewer fouls per game than any of the starting Tar Heel forwards.
The question is whether Harvard can play with a small margin of error for a full 40 minutes. The season finale against Dartmouth, which Harvard won just 58-42 after holding a 42-15 lead, was typical of the season’s stretch run.
“I just loved what we did [in the first half] at Dartmouth, but that’s just one of the games where there wasn’t any adrenaline. There were all those letdown factors,” Delaney-Smith said.
Letdowns touched even Harvard’s best at the end of the season. Peljto shot just 6-of-23 in the finale against Dartmouth. Monti had 11 turnovers in her last two games. Both know that they’ll need their best efforts to win tomorrow.
But both have every incentive to produce that effort tomorrow. It’s the March Madness debut for everyone on the Harvard team, and no one wants to leave their best game behind.
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