Making it Big

Steven A Soto

After missing the 2011-12 season due to NCAA regulations, sophomore and Olympian Temi Fagbenle is poised to shake up the Harvard women’s basketball program.

At 6’4”, the forward towers above her teammates—and most of the Ivy League competition. But sitting on the sidelines last season took its toll on Fagbenle and the team, which posted its fourth straight second-place finish in the Ancient Eight. NCAA regulations attempting to control for the flow of European athletes into American collegiate athletics forced Fagbenle to sit a year in residency.

“It was a low point of my athletic career to have to not play for my first year ever,” Fanbegle says. “It was pretty tough to deal with at the time, but, looking back, I believe things happen for a reason, and I think good did come out of it.”

Some of that good for Fagbenle came last spring, when she was selected as the youngest member of Great Britain’s Olympic team. Starting on the U-20 squad, she got on the fast track to the full team following an impressive performance at preparation camp.

Great Britain failed to pick up a win in the Olympic tournament, but Fagbenle played a role in all five games. She averaged 4.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks. Fagbenle says that competing against the top athletes in the world helped her focus on her mental game.

“It’s not just about what kind of moves I can make now,” Fagbenle says. “Seeing the way those top level players saw the floor, thought about the game, reacted to certain situations, and handled pressure was a fantastic learning experience.”

Fagbenle’s teammates recognize that she will be an impact player and credit her for her contribution last year.

“Last season, Temi brought her abilities to the team in the sense that she was able to make us better day in and day out by playing against us [in practice],” co-captain Miriam Rutzen says. “Even though she couldn’t play in games, we were able to practice against that caliber of player throughout the season.”

Fagbenle’s combination of size and skill will add a significant post presence, allowing the other forwards—who range from 6’0” to 6’2”—to match up more evenly with opponents.

“Forwards across the board were asked to step up and play against 6’4” and 6’5” people last year,” Rutzen says. “The experience that we got last year being the undersized underdogs will only make us stronger this year, and now we are playing more natural positions.”

Although Crimson coach Kathy Delaney-Smith says that she is not ready to name starters, she acknowledged that Fagbenle will have an enormous impact on Harvard’s offense this season. But the team will have to adjust to accommodate her presence.

“The hard part for Miriam and Emma is they play so well together, so they lose that comfort zone,” Delaney-Smith says. “They are all are learning to play with Temi, which they should because she is a remarkable player.”

According to Delaney-Smith, Fagbenle’s size and skill will impact the game at both ends.

“She’s an incredible shot-blocker,” Delaney-Smith says. “We have a defensive system that is going to be different than what we’ve had [in past seasons]. Offensively, she has great hands. If she misses her first shot, she has a great second jump.”

Fagbenle will be joined by a freshman class that includes guard and top-100 recruit Shilpa Tummala, who committed a year after Fagbenle decided on Harvard. Fagbenle knew she wanted to play basketball in college, but she turned down higher-ranked programs for Harvard’s academics. Although some credit Fagbenle’s decision with increasing the Crimson’s standing for future recruits, Fagbenle says that she does not think about it that way.

“It would be wonderful if I was to hear that someone committed because they wanted to add to the program, and they heard that I was here, but that wasn’t the goal,” Fagbenle says. “I don’t see myself being any kind of crazy superstar. I just want to bring something positive to the team.”

Although she was not able to play or travel last year, Fagbenle feels that the transition will not be difficult, as she spent so much time practicing with her teammates as a freshman. She hopes to contribute to the Crimson’s first Ivy League title since 2008.

“This year, we are working on being a more cohesive team and that will determine whether we win the championship,” Fagbenle says. “It’s not whether we have the talent because we definitely have the talent. If we utilize that and work together to create the best outcome, we will be a force to be reckoned with.”