On Friday night, moments after the end of a contest between Harvard women’s basketball and Cornell, Crimson coach Kathy Delaney-Smith exhaled audibly.
Her Harvard team (15-1, 3-0 Ivy), winners of 14 straight before Friday, had entered with a perfect conference record. Over the last forty minutes, the visiting Big Red (11-5, 2-1) had done everything to blemish that mark.
But Friday night at Lavietes Pavilion, Harvard clawed its way to a 62-59 triumph and its 15th consecutive victory.
The spark for the win came off the bench from sophomore guard Sydney Skinner and junior forward Taylor Rooks, who scored 23 and 13 points, respectively. On a night when the usually dependable scoring from freshman Jeannie Boehm and co-captain forward Destiny Nunley was lacking, Rooks and Skinner stepped up when the team needed them most.
“We are all really tired of these close games. We are ready to play Harvard basketball,” Nunley said. “A couple of us were not hitting the shots that we are used to hitting. You could feel that we were upset about our shooting. We felt like we should have turned it on, but thank the Lord that [Sydney] turned it on.”
Skinner shined the brightest going into the final period of play, with Crimson only a field goal ahead of the Big Red. The Plano, TX. native would score 11 of her 23 points in the fourth quarter.
Despite the last quarter heroics, the sophomore also missed a free throw in the final seconds of the contest that would have given Harvard a four-point lead. On the final possession of the game, however, Cornell got a shot off but missed a three to tie the game.
“To be honest this is the type of play we expect from [Skinner],” Coach Delaney-Smith said. “The only thing that surprised me about her play was the one missed foul shot at the end [of the game]. She never misses foul shots.”
Skinner’s ability and willingness to make effort plays showed before the conclusion of the third quarter when she ran the floor to make a LeBron-like block from behind to keep the score tied at 44-44 heading into the final period.
“What is great about her is she’s such an unselfish player. If she sees that someone else has a better opportunity to score, she’ll get them the ball,” Nunley said. “She gives her heart and soul on the court. We always joke around that she hits the floor the hardest. Simply put, we need her.”
Throughout the contest, Cornell’s experience seemed to overwhelm the younger Harvard team. The Big Red started five seniors and prevented Harvard from ever getting into an offensive groove.
There were 10 lead changes over the course of Friday’s matchup. Harvard held the largest lead of the day—a nine-point advantage—in the second quarter.
“There’s such value to experience,” Coach Delaney-Smith said. “I’ve never coached a team that played five seniors at a time, but if I could, I know I would appreciate the value of it.”
For the Big Red, its experience was centered around the play of senior forward Nia Marshall, who earned Ivy League Player of the Week honors after the previous week’s performance against Columbia. Harvard often double-teamed Marshall and forced Cornell’s backcourt to make shots.
“Coaches told us it would take a village to stop her because she is such a great player,” Skinner said. “Their perimeter players were great, but they definitely relied heavily on her.”
Harvard’s defense stepped up to the challenge and limited the senior to 10 points. Boehm, despite scoring an uncharacteristically low 5 points, remained a presence in the paint. She collected 13 boards and blocked three shots. Boehm’s biggest rejection came in the final minute of the game and led to Skinner’s clutch free throw shot.
“We’re so lucky to have [Boehm]. She gives me so much confidence on the court,” Nunley said. “She pulled me aside before the fourth quarter—a freshman pulling senior captain to the side—and [said], ‘ You’re going to take over this game, and we need you.’"
—Staff writer Stuart Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.