You can’t coach it. You can’t practice it. And you certainly can’t win without it.
With one conference loss in the past two seasons, the Harvard women’s basketball team should have entered the 2003-04 campaign overwhelmed by the stuff. Crimson coach Kathy Delaney-Smith’s squad had lost only two players—Kate Ides ’03 and senior Dirkje Dunham—and neither was a starter at year’s end.
Leading off with Hana Peljto—easily the best player in the league—at forward and Reka Cserny at center, Harvard already had more talent than any other school running three in the front court. Toss in Bev Moore, who can handle the ball better than anyone else at Harvard—the men’s team included—to feed Peljto and Cserny and pop an occasional three and the Crimson has the best nucleus in the league. Pencil in Tricia Tubridy and anyone at the two-guard and this team should have had no difficulty packing its bags for the tourney come March.
But four Ivy League losses later, Harvard isn’t on pace for an NCAA bid. Instead, the Crimson is headed for its first sub-.500 season in 10 years.
On paper it makes no sense. Harvard shouldn’t have been the team slinking off the Lavietes hardwood as Penn celebrated. Or looked on as Dartmouth did the same weeks earlier. Or lost to Yale—anywhere.
But then again, lack of confidence doesn’t fit neatly into a box on the sports page. It’s one of those unquantifiable variables that separates the great teams from their competition, that explains why teams that shouldn’t win do, and those that should don’t.
“We have not stopped trying,” Delaney-Smith said after Harvard’s loss to the Quakers. “We have done a number of things, from humor to music to this program, to that program. There is not a sports psychology book I have not read right now, believe me.”
But you can’t manufacture confidence, at least not that way. That strut, that bravado, that knowledge that you’re untouchable. Only winning can give a team that confidence. And this year, early in the season, the Crimson didn’t.
Last year, Harvard didn’t lose to a team not ranked in the top-25 nationally.
The Crimson opened this season with a loss to No. 16 Colorado, followed three games later by a another to Florida St., another top-30 team. To win either, let alone both, would have been a victory larger than a single W. Harvard shouldn’t have won either, particularly on the road.
Not to worry. A 47-point drubbing of cupcake Connecticut College could cure those ills. Surely after a display like that the Crimson wouldn’t falter again. Maybe, just maybe, against another high-quality opponent.
Harvard lost to Northeastern in the very next game.
In 11 years, the Crimson has finished above .500 only once after falling to the Huskies; following six of its seven victories over its cross-town foe, Harvard has finished with 19 wins.
So the alternating wins and losses shouldn’t have surprised anyone. After all, the Crimson was just doing what it has historically always done.