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Preview: Women's Basketball Set to Visit Princeton and Penn

Ben There, Done That
Sophomore guard Katie Benzan has reached the 20-point plateau in three straight games. The Wellesley, Mass., native is averaging seven assists over that span and will look to continue facilitating this weekend against lock-down Penn and Princeton squads.

In an all-important weekend, Harvard women’s basketball will travel to Princeton, N.J., and Philadelphia, Penn., to take on the only other two teams in the Ivy League with just a single loss in a two-day battle for the top of the conference.

The Crimson (13-6, 5-1 Ivy League) is coming off an impressive home winning streak of six straight games. Harvard has yet to lose in Lavietes Pavilion, posting a perfect 10-0 record at home this season. The team’s away record of 1-5, however tells a different story.

Nevertheless, Harvard will hit the road this weekend looking to take down Princeton (14-4, 4-1) and Penn (13-5, 4-1) for control of the conference.

“The home stretch has been great. It’s really built our confidence,” senior co-captain Kirby Porter said. “One of things we’ve been emphasizing this week is that we don’t care where we’re playing, our mentality home and away should be the same by taking that energy from home and replicating it.”

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The Crimson hopes to flip the script against the two squads. The Tigers have swept Harvard in conference play for three straight years, with the Crimson’s last win over Princeton coming in January 2014. The Quakers have also swept Harvard three years in a row, and the Crimson has not won in Philadelphia in nearly six years, as its last successful trip to Penn came in February 2012.

This is not to say both rivalries have been completely one-sided, however. Harvard has taken the Tigers to overtime in each of the last two seasons, and the margin of victory between the two teams has not eclipsed 10 points since 2015.

The Quakers, on the other hand, have seen an average margin of victory against the Crimson of 19 points in the last four matchups between the two teams. Decisive victories have become the norm for Penn, as it boasts a whopping plus-12.6 scoring margin on the year.

While there is something to be said for history, Harvard doesn’t seem to care.

“One of the strengths of this team is we don’t care who [we’re] playing,” Porter said. “We have this mentality that we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”

It is not easy to ignore the major implications of this weekend for all three squads. Each team sits atop the Ancient Eight with only one conference loss. Harvard is currently in first place by half a game, trailed closely by Princeton and Penn. The team that comes out of the weekend with the best record will be in the driver’s seat for the second half of the conference season, as the Tigers and Quakers both also host Dartmouth (12-7, 4-2). The Big Green are nipping at the heels of the three leaders in a close fourth place.

Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith’s group enters Friday’s contest at Princeton in peak form. The Crimson’s explosive offense has scored over 80 points in four straight games. Over the course of its dominant homestand, Harvard has averaged 82.5 points per game thanks to double-digit performances from six different players.

“I think that says so much about our team,” Porter said. “It’s been our identity all year, we don’t care who’s scoring, and on any given night anyone can be the top scorer or performer.”

In the team’s victory over Cornell, every single player saw the court—a further statement of the group mentality central to the Crimson’s success. The contributors included freshman forward Jadyn Bush, who recorded her first career double-double that night. Bush saw extended playing time due to injuries causing sophomore forward Jeannie Boehm and junior guard Sydney Skinner to leave the game. Despite the thin bench, Harvard’s offense did not slow down.

“Our team is pretty deep and no matter who’s in the game,” senior guard Taylor Rooks said. “We always show the same amount of intensity from the start of the jump to the end of the game.”

Harvard’s electric offense will encounter resistance this weekend in the form of the top two defenses in the Ivy League. Princeton allows the fewest points per game at 56.3, while Penn follows closely behind at 56.9. No other team in the conference allows fewer than 61 on an average night.

“This weekend might be slower,” said Porter, referencing the defense-minded style of both upcoming opponents. “The key for us is staying on the same page on offense, not rushing our shots, and being confident in our shot selection.”

Throughout the 2017-2018 campaign, the Crimson has been showcasing its offense talent, averaging 70.5 points per game this season. The versatile offense will face its toughest challenge yet in the stout defenses.

“It comes down to us playing our game and staying composed by playing within ourselves,” Rooks said.

Whether defense or offense prevails, Harvard will be looking to reverse the trends of the past in order to take control of first place.

—Staff writer Joseph W. Minatel can be reached at joseph.minatel@thecrimson.com.

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