Harvard earned its second consecutive road split this weekend, falling to Columbia in disappointing fashion before outlasting Cornell the following night. Each game was defined by its first quarter. The Crimson was outscored 22-2 and shot 1-of-17 in a brutal opening stanza in Morningside Heights and then hit five threes in a dominant 25-13 opening period in Ithaca, N.Y.,.
HARVARD 68, CORNELL 61
After a tough loss to Columbia, Harvard (11-8, 4-2 Ivy) knew it would have to come out strong against a scrappy Cornell (7-10, 1-5) team if it wanted to remain within shouting distance of Ivy League leading Penn. And it did just that, turning the Big Red over six times in the first quarter and jumping out to an early 13-2 lead before using its sizable height advantage to wear down Cornell late.
“I think we just had the mindset of coming out really aggressive,” co-captain guard Madeline Raster said. “We went down 22-2 in the first quarter of the Columbia game so we felt like we had to make up for that by coming back really strong in the first quarter and playing really well in the Cornell game.”
As she so often has this season, junior guard Katie Benzan set the tone for the Crimson early, scoring eight of her team-high 20 points in the first quarter and spearheading a tremendous passing quarter in which Harvard assisted on eight of its nine baskets.
“We realized that if we want to reach our goal of an Ivy League championship then we have to take care of business against Cornell,” Benzan said. “We lost that opportunity to take care of business against Columbia and that was disappointing, frustrating, but our goals are still in reach so we left that disappointment behind and we just went out on the court against Cornell hungry for a win.”
After its quick start, the Crimson struggled to maintain its ball movement and the free-flowing offense that spurred the first quarter production. Harvard managed just five total assists and 43 points in the last three quarters and lost all three quarters to the hometown Big Red.
It appeared late in the game that — as it so often does — the nearly four hour bus ride from New York City had taken a toll on the Crimson. In the fourth quarter, Harvard shot just 3-of-14 and 1-of-8 from three point range. But the Crimson played well enough defensively to hold Cornell at arm’s length and led by at least eight points until just five seconds remained.
“Shooting better [against Cornell] definitely helped,” Benzan said, “but I think it was more of a mentality thing that we weren’t going to accept anything but a win that night and so we went out there and just threw the first punch and then kept throwing the punch and just never took our foot off the peddle. We were very relentless.”
Three Harvard starters, sophomore forward Jadyn Bush, junior forward Jeannie Boehm, and Raster, fouled out Saturday. But none of the three was in much foul trouble until the fourth quarter, when the game was all but decided. They entered the fourth with three, two, and two fouls respectively, and all three played their normal allotment of minutes for the Crimson.
Junior forward Laura Bagwell-Katalinich paced the Big Red with a career-high 25 points. Junior guard Samantha Widmann added 14 and was the only player in the game to play the full 40 minutes.
Also notable Saturday was that head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith chose to shuffle Harvard’s starting lineup in the aftermath of the disappointing defeat at Columbia. Senior guard Nani Redford, who had been one of the few bright spots for the Crimson on Friday, joined the lineup in place of co-captain Sydney Skinner, who played 15 minutes off the bench against Cornell.
COLUMBIA 75, HARVARD 65
Very rarely does a team lose a game in which it is as dominant on the boards as Harvard was against Columbia (6-13, 2-4) on Friday. The Crimson gobbled up 27 offensive rebounds and held the Lions to just eight, allowing Harvard to take 35 more shots than its opponents.
That is exactly what happened in Manhattan, though, as the Crimson fell behind early on and shot poorly enough (28%) to squander its rebounding dominance and the efforts of forwards Boehm and Bush, who both posted double-doubles and combined for 26 rebounds (16 of them offensive).
The shooting struggles Friday night were pervasive. Benzan, normally such a reliable shooter, scored just three points, making it her worst performance since the bloodbath at then-No. 1 Notre Dame that opened Harvard’s season. She combined with Raster and Skinner to shoot 6-of-38 from the field.
“They [Columbia] played a zone and they pressed us and they played really good defense,” Benzan said. “They made everyone’s shots difficult and they really strove to make everyone uncomfortable in what they usually do.”
The Crimson’s problems went beyond poor shooting. Harvard also got crushed at the free throw line, where it earned just seven free throw attempts on the night, of which it made three. Columbia, meanwhile, finished 24-of-27 from the line and set the tone early by going 9-of-9 from the charity stripe in the first quarter.
The Lions came into the weekend with three players averaging double-digit points per game. All three played very well against the Crimson, with sophomore guard Riley Casey leading the way with 23 points, freshman forward Sienna Durr contributing 22, and junior guard Janiya Clemmons adding 21.
“We just didn’t play our normal game and we have to focus more on coming back and playing great defense,” Raster said. “That’s something that’s key that we need to work on in terms of starting games strong. Just getting energy from our defense and not necessarily from our offense.”
After three straight road weekends in which Harvard went 3-2, the Crimson will finally return to Cambridge next week for its crucial homestand against conference favorites Penn and Princeton. Harvard will look to extend its eight game home winning streak in Ivy League play, a streak that extends back to the beginning of last year’s conference season.
“We love playing at home,” Benzan said, “and we feel that we play better at home with our home fans and all of that jazz so we are just very excited to be home.”
— Staff writer Lev Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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