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With under a minute left to play, sophomore guard Maggie McCarthy dished a backdoor pass to sophomore forward Tess Sussman, who laid the ball in off the glass. The Friday night crowd at Lavietes Pavilion cheered as McCarthy and Sussman embraced at half court, while a demoralized University of California at Berkeley team called a timeout to regroup.
Sussman’s layup solidified Harvard’s lead against the Bears as the Crimson successfully mounted a 56-53 comeback win in its home opener. The game marked Harvard’s second consecutive victory over Cal.
To senior co-captain and guard Mackenzie Barta, back-to-back victories over the Bears is no small feat.
“It’s huge. Beating them once is like, okay, it could have been a fluke. We just had a good shooting night. They maybe didn't play their best,” Barta said. “But beating them twice. I think it's a statement.”
The Crimson’s “statement” victory, however, was far from inevitable. In fact, coach Kathy Delaney-Smith called Friday night’s victory an “ugly game.”
“I couldn't be more proud of this team, because I don't think we did a lot of things well, other than play our hearts out on the defensive end,” she said.
Early in the first quarter, Harvard got out ahead, but California chipped at the Crimson’s lead, hitting a fluke three point shot at the buzzer to tie the game at 14 going into the second quarter.
California’s man-to-man defense stifled Harvard’s players. Repeatedly, the Crimson players were forced to throw up desperate attempts to score as the shot clock wound down to its last seconds. In the second quarter, Cal held Harvard to score only five points and led by 10 at the halftime intermission.
Harvard’s weak offense was compounded by turnovers. The squad looked out of synch; at their worst, players were unable to complete passes to each other under the slightest defensive pressure. As a result, Harvard ended the first half with a whopping 15 turnovers.
“Inexperience was our demon,” Delaney-Smith said. “We're either young or coming back from an injury. So everything we're doing is rusty. And I expect it to be ugly, because we don't know each other very well on the offensive end..there's no quick road to experience.”
Though the team lacks experience, it oozes with character.
“There's such heart and selflessness on this team right now. It's very selfless. I felt it since we started practice,” Delaney-Smith said.
This selflessness was vital to the Crimson’s comeback effort in the second half. It manifested in critical plays down the stretch, like the back door pass from McCarthy to Sussman.
“Maggie and Tess didn’t play a lot last year. And now they’re the heart and rock of our team. They’re both phenomenal players,” Delaney-Smith said.
On offense, Sussman added fuel to the Crimson’s comeback effort. Twice in the fourth quarter, from the position of right wing, the versatile guard/forward drove middle past her defender and finished at the hoop with her left hand to tie the game. Sussman finished with 13 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 steals.
Though McCarthy does not usually play point guard, she looked like a floor general in Friday’s game. The guard was ubiquitous on the court; she chased down rebounds, tussled on the ground to get possession of the ball, and swarmed her opponents by playing help defense. McCarthy made herself essential to the Crimson on both ends of the floor, tallying 38 minutes of game time play. In that time, she grabbed 7 rebounds, dished 3 assists, and scored 4 points.
“She's become our floor leader,” Barta said. McCarthy is “doing all of the...intangible things, and I know that might not show up on the scoresheet, but we definitely all appreciate it. I think she's one of the most gritty players that we have for sure, very consistent too.”
In addition to the sophomores, standout freshman guard Lola Mullaney led both teams in scoring with 14 points in only three quarters. Her prolific scoring performance was cut short due to an ankle injury that forced her to be carried off the court by her teammates. Despite her injury, Mullaney made a statement of her own in her Harvard debut against Northern Illinois on Tuesday by scoring 25 points.
The second leading scorer for the Crimson was senior forward Jeannie Boehm. Boehm, who grinded in the post against Cal’s formidable forwards, scored 10 points. Though she looked frustrated in the first half, she came out determined in the second half, scoring buckets in the paint to give the Crimson needed momentum.
Senior co-captain Mackenzie Barta recorded the first double-double of her career. In 32 minutes of play, she grabbed 12 rebounds and scored 10 points.
Missing from the team’s lineup in the Crimson’s first two games of the season is junior forward Jadyn Bush. Bush, who led the Crimson in rebounds last year, is recovering from a shoulder surgery she underwent in the offseason. Delaney-Smith is confident that Bush will be back in the rotation by the time Harvard begins its league play.
Barta said Friday night’s win was a testament to the team’s mentality this season.
“The team culture, I don't know how to explain it, but it's different,” she said. “It's new, it's fresh. I think we're ready to do big things this year. It's gritty. That's my word of the day. Grit. This team has a lot of grit.”
— Staff writer Ema Schumer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emaschumer.
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