Roughly 70 million college basketball brackets are filled out every year. More brackets will be completed than ballots have been cast for an individual presidential candidate in a single election.
The first step of many amateur and professional bracketologists is to pencil in the one seeds for victory over the lowly 16 seeds. The tiny David taking down a heavily favored Goliath, in the men’s or women’s tournament, has happened only once. It is practically impossible. On March 14, 1998, however, the impossible occurred.
That year, the Stanford Cardinal prepared for its first-round game heavily favored against a team which was expected to be a soon-forgotten underdog. Stanford had not missed the NCAA tournament in 11 years, and it usually dominated. Six of its last eight seasons resulted in a Final Four appearance, including two national titles. The Cardinal had reached the Final Four in three straight seasons leading up to its 1998 matchup against a seemingly overmatched 16-seed from the Ivy League.
“We didn’t feel like terrible underdogs going in,” then-senior guard Alison Seanor said. “But I think the entire country thought we were underdogs.”
In 1998, before she became the winningest coach in Ivy League basketball history and led the USA national team, Kathy Delaney-Smith was a young coach in Cambridge for an overlooked team that had never won the Ivy League, let alone made the NCAA Tournament. Delaney-Smith took her first college job at Harvard in 1982 and has been there ever since.
That season, the Crimson rose to the top of the conference, recording its third straight conference title and tournament appearance in the 1997-1998 season. However, Harvard had yet to win a single game in the tournament. A forgotten 16-seed, the Crimson was determined to rewrite history against Stanford.
“I don’t think we got the respect we should’ve gotten,” Delaney-Smith said. “Getting the 16-seed was the last straw.”
“We were very upset about where we were seeded,” recalled Dr. Suzie Miller, then a junior guard on the team. “It was a slap in the face to be seeded 16…so we came in with a bit of a chip on our shoulder.”
In order to earn the respect it felt it deserved, Harvard would have to take on one of the giants of college basketball in a hostile environment. The Crimson prepared for the intensity of Maples Pavilion, where Stanford had compiled a 59-game home winning streak that stretched back to 1994.
“Together, the coaches came up with this practice plan to make the gym incredibly noisy,” Miller said.
Delaney-Smith elaborated on the details of the preparation, saying, “We had prepared for that, doing a lot of gimmicky things leading up to the game, like playing loud music in the gym, and I had to use signs to call the offenses because it was that loud. That wasn’t anything we had done all year.”
Harvard refused to allow the Cardinal’s reputation or court to frighten it early in the game, jumping out to an quick lead behind senior captain Allison Feaster. The nation’s leading scorer racked up 35 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in the huge upset.
“She could score on the block and she could nail the three,” Delaney-Smith said. “Back in 1998, there were not a lot of inside players that were doing that.”
Feaster, who averaged a double-double in each of her four seasons for the Crimson, would go on to finish her illustrious career with the second-most points (2,312), third-most rebounds (1,157), and third-most steals (290) in conference history.
“Allison Feaster was one of those superstars whose greatest strength was that she made all of her teammates better,” Delaney-Smith said. “That doesn’t always happen with your star.”
Stanford, playing without starters Vanessa Nygaard and Kristin Folkl, had no answer for Feaster. At the half, Harvard shockingly led the Cardinal 43-34.
“It was the perfect storm for us,” Delaney-Smith said. “We were better than everyone thought we were, and that was not a fluke.”
Early into the second half, Harvard kept up the intensity, taking a double-digit lead. The underdogs had complete control of the game, but one of the best teams of the decade would not go down without a fight. Stanford roared back, tying the game with just under 10 minutes to play and taking a 65-62 lead with only a few minutes remaining on the clock.
“We did not go into it thinking we’re going to try to keep it close,” Seanor said. “We went into it thinking we’re going to win.”
Following a layup by Feaster and jump shot from Miller, the Crimson would retake the lead 66-65 with just over a minute and a half to play.
“We changed from man to zone, and that’s a risk,” Delaney-Smith said. “It shocked them, they weren’t ready for the zone… that risk worked.”
Not long after, Miller would effectively ice the game with a three-pointer from the corner to give Harvard a four-point lead. When the final buzzer sounded, the Crimson had secured a 71-67 decision for its first ever Women’s NCAA Tournament victory in program history.
For the players, the experience returning to campus was surreal.
“It was absolutely fantastic to come home,” Miller said. “People were taking pictures, cheering, and I thought, ‘Wow, how cool is this?’”
Harvard’s run would not last for long, however. The Crimson’s starting center, junior Rose Janowski, was rushed to the hospital the night before Harvard’s second-round matchup with Arkansas. Without its only player taller than six feet, Harvard fell to the Razorbacks, 82-64. Arkansas took over the Cinderella story from the Crimson, miraculously reaching the Final Four as a nine-seed, the lowest to reach the semifinals in the Women’s NCAA Tournament.
For Harvard, however, history had been achieved. Even twenty years later, no other 16-seed has claimed victory. Only once in college basketball has the elusive feat ever been achieved, and the Crimson will never forget its spectacular accomplishment.
“I was proud of giving the Harvard community something to rally around,” Miller said. “And that’s what sports are all about.”
—Staff writer Joseph W. Minatel can be reached at email@example.com.