Harvard is coming off of a season in which it finished third for the fourth consecutive year behind Ancient Eight foes Penn and Princeton. The team had a 10-4 conference record — its best finish since 2013-14 — and came heartbreakingly close to usurping the Quakers in a narrow semifinal defeat in the Ivy League tournament. The loss resulted in a trip to the NIT where it suffered an opening round loss to Fordham.
The Crimson come into this season ready to avenge its semifinal loss and return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 12 years. With a poised group of veteran players, the team looks to change its mentality in order to be more prepared to counteract its toughest Ivy League foes.
Senior co-captain Madeline Raster acknowledges the team’s talent and the adjustment to its mental approach against the likes of Penn and Princeton.
“I think it’s really important for us to take every game at a time,” Raster said. “I think the last couple of years we’ve overlooked a couple of games because we’ve been nervous about Penn and Princeton, but I think it’s really important for us to take each game at a time, and then obviously when the big games come we’ll have the experience of the other Ivy League games to help us with that.”
The Quakers and the Tigers are no longer intimidating obstacles that could not be overcome. Having a newfound mindset, the Crimson are ready to take on any and all challenges that stand in the way of its utmost goal: winning a championship.
Harvard’s journey in non-conference play has not been the smoothest, beginning with the unenviable task of going against the reigning national champion Notre Dame. Although driven and willing to take on the challenge of competing with the best the nation had to offer, the Crimson ultimately fell by a lopsided score of 103-58.
The team then traveled to Purdue where it narrowly lost to the Boilermakers 66-65. Starting the season with two consecutive losses was less than ideal for a team that had championship expectations. Nevertheless, the experience and leadership exhibited by the upperclassmen provided the team with the composure necessary to bounce back from two debilitating losses. The players held their heads up high and used these defeats as a learning experience and a motivational tool.
Harvard surged forward, winning four of its next five games. During that stretch, the Crimson outscored its opponents by over 22 points a game and displayed its defensive tenacity by giving up an average of only 53 points a game. The early doldrums of the season seemed to be an afterthought and Harvard started looking like a team capable of making serious noise in the Ancient Eight.
Unfortunately, the Crimson could not keep up its stretch of stellar victories and followed its success with three consecutive losses. One of these losses was a double-overtime nail-biter against Quinnipiac, demonstrating that there was still room for improvement in Harvard’s ability to close out games.
Head Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith alluded to the inconsistency in the Crimson’s play in the early portion of the season.
“Like any team, we all strive to be consistent, and I didn’t feel we were consistent ,” coach Delaney-Smith said. “The inconsistencies were more on the offensive end in the execution.I thought defensively — this is a really tough defensive team. We need to be more disciplined and more efficient in our execution. That would bring more consistency to our offense.”
Despite its inconsistencies throughout the season, Harvard closed out the non-conference portion of its schedule on a strong note. The team won three games in a row and continued to make its defensive presence known, holding BU and Rhode Island each to 47 points.
The highlight of their non-conference slate was undoubtedly its very last game of the calendar year, an 85-79 thriller against a 14th-ranked California team. The victory against Cal was its first win over a ranked team since 1998, when a 16-seed Harvard beat the top-seeded Stanford in the NCAA Tournament.
Beating Cal was the momentum shift the Crimson needed heading into Ivy League play. Katie Benzan, the team’s junior sharpshooter, remarked on how the team felt after that triumph.
“I think that win against Cal gave us a boost in confidence and almost assurance that we can beat whoever we want, we just have to work hard and put our minds to it,” Benzan said. “Right now we’re definitely determined and relentless to win out, to be honest with you.”
Senior co-captain Madeline Raster furthered those remarks by pointing out how the victory puts the team in a strong position for the rest of the season.
“I definitely think Cal was really great for us because we kind of had a lot of ups and downs during the non-conference season but then obviously ended really strong with those last three wins and especially the one at Cal,” Raster said. “So I think it will give us a lot of confidence in ourselves to propel us into the Ivy League season.”
With its conference schedule underway this weekend, it will be paramount for Harvard to not lose sight of the goal at hand and ride the momentum from its last three games. Coach Delaney-Smith believes that the Crimson is much better than its record indicates and has the potential to continuously improve going into conference play.
“I know everyone looks at our record and our standings right now, but I think the RPI and the strength of schedule speaks volumes and doesn’t always show up in the win-loss,” coach Delaney-Smith said. “We play non-conference to prepare for Ivy and I think we had a tremendous experience in our non-conference. Strength of schedule, type of games we had, type of teams we played, matchups that we had — I think more than prepares us for Ivy.”
Now that their non-conference preparation is behind them, Harvard has to prove its abilities against the rest of the Ancient Eight. A win against Dartmouth this weekend will be critical for the Crimson to make it through a tough conference schedule. The Big Green and Harvard both hold a 7-6 record through non-conference play.
The Crimson will need to rely on its dependable scoring attack and its stalwart defense in order to defeat Dartmouth and the rest of their Ivy League competitors. Junior Katie Benzan leads all scorers with 14.8 points a game, followed by senior Sydney Skinner and Sophomore Jadyn Bush with 12.5 and 10.5 respectively. This trio will need to continue to score in double figures and lead the Harvard offense. On the defensive side, Harvard will have to keep playing with relentless pressure and win the rebounding battle.
Following its home opener, the Crimson has a brutal road stretch of five games and will not be back in Cambridge until February 15th. During this stretch, the poise and composure of the team’s veterans will be integral to their success. Thus far, Harvard has proven to be a successful team on the road, posting a 4-3 record with impressive wins such as their victory over Cal.
Co-captain Raster recognizes how crucial the veteran talent will be to the team’s performance away from home.
“I have full confidence in our team on the road. We have a lot of veterans who have played a lot of basketball,” Raster said. “We’re definitely a veteran team so I have full confidence in our ability to go win big games on the road.”
Confident and collected play from the veterans on the team is what Coach Delaney-Smith acknowledges as a critical difference between this year’s and last year’s iteration of the team.
“I’ve been a big proponent of our talent,” coach Delaney-Smith said. “ I think I’ve had some tremendously talented over the past few years, but youth. Last year I thought we had enough experience, and I think we fell short of what I think we should have accomplished last year. I feel the same this year. I think we’re pretty talented, I think we’re deep, and now we’re not young. Now, I would call us a very veteran team.”
With a team brimmed with experienced veterans, a tough road conference schedule should be no excuse for this Crimson team to not achieve its goals of winning a championship.
“Road games are always the hardest, so we definitely want to make a point that we’re here to win and we don’t care if we’re playing in Timbuktu or home or at Yale or Brown,” Katie Benzan said. “It doesn’t matter where we just have to play and win.”
After its road stretch, the Crimson will have five of its remaining seven games at home and should be in prime position to finish strong. This year the team is out on a vengeance and want to claim the chip more than anything in the world. For the seniors, their performance in these games means the world to them, as these will be the last games they will play in a Harvard uniform.
“Senior year is really special in that every game is the last one you’ll play in the Harvard uniform
against that team,” co-captain Madeline Raster said. “Me and the other seniors definitely have a chip on our shoulders because we’ve come in third the last couple of seasons in the Ivy League, so yeah, we’re just looking forward to it, and I think we have a lot of confidence from non-conference.”
Starting with its Ivy League opener this weekend against Dartmouth, the Crimson is ready to put the Ancient Eight on notice and prove that it is a serious contender to bring home the title in March.
—Staff writer Lev Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Mahtab Shihab can be reached at email@example.com.
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