On Saturday, Harvard women’s basketball had a chance to make a late-season statement with a win over powerhouse Penn (19-7, Ivy 12-1), the top team in the conference.
Instead, the Crimson (20-7, 8-6 Ivy) suffered a crushing defeat at home, allowing the Quakers to capture an outright Ivy League title. Penn, which had never repeated as champions before, fulfilled unanimous media predictions of an Ancient Eight crown.
The Quakers dominated the hosts from the tip-off, never allowing Harvard to get ahead and keeping the young squad uncomfortable all night long.
“I think we had the same problem that we had the first time we played [Penn]. We weren’t hitting the shots we’re used to hitting,” co-captain Destiny Nunley said. “When we see shots not go in that we know should go in, we struggle to continue to have confidence in ourselves.”
With the final tally at 64-46, the improvement and revenge the Crimson sought after the 20-point loss a month earlier would not be achieved in its last night in Lavietes Pavilion. The Quakers’ two 6’3’” forwards, junior Michelle Nwokedi and senior Sydney Stipanovich, owned the front court on both ends of the floor. The players scored 22 and 10 points, respectively
“Obviously having two 6’3” girls in your front court will have some effect in your inside game,” freshman guard Katie Benzan said. “I think we did what was necessary to suck them into the paint and kick the ball out to the shooters. It’s just too bad that we didn’t hit them tonight.”
In this way, Benzan agreed with coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, who concluded that Harvard had gotten—but just not sank—the shots that the team wanted. Against a program like Penn with enough size and experience to overwhelm any Ivy League team, missing layups and open three-point shots added up over the course of the contest.
Harvard shot 29 percent from the field, almost as bad as the 26 percent performance at the Palestra a month earlier. A combination of inaccurate and timid shot-taking doomed the Crimson from the start.
“I just don’t know why [the shots] don’t go in,” Delaney-Smith said. “We played hard enough, but we have to put the ball in the basket. We are young and inconsistent in our swagger and believing in our shot.”
Both freshman standout Jeannie Boehm and sophomore guard Madeline Raster logged a single field goal each. With two of Harvard’s leaders struggling to find their rhythm, the rest of the team needed to try to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, that backup cast never materialized in Saturday’s matchup.
The Crimson struggled on the boards throughout play, as the Quakers collective 18 offensive rebounds on the night. Eleven came in the second half of play. At times, Penn’s oversized front court would just reach over Harvard players and collect the ball.
Penn jumped out to a 9-2 lead early in the first half, but the Crimson fought back to finish the quarter down by only two points. However, Penn shot ahead by 10 points, 34-24, before the start of intermission.
Despite late runs by the Crimson in the second half, the Quakers kept Harvard at bay and cruised to a back-to-back Ivy championship.
The overall narrative of the game mirrored the teams’ first meeting. Back then, the Crimson conceded an early lead and doomed itself to a blowout loss with poor shooting. That loss snapped a 16-game win streak.
Since then, Harvard has not fully recovered its form from that multi-month run. The Crimson has finished the season 4-6 and introduced clouds of doubt over a team that previously seemed destined for a sunny ending.
Now the No. 3 seed in the Ivy League tournament, Harvard will have a third and final crack at the No. 2 seed Princeton Tigers at the Palestra in Philadelphia.
“I just hope that we play with heart, intensity, and a sense of urgency,” Benzan said. “It’s really hard to beat a team three times, so when it really matters, it will be our time.”
—Staff writer Stuart Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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