In her 40 years as the Harvard women’s basketball coach, Kathy Delaney-Smith has overcome countless obstacles. She took over a program which had never had a full-time head coach – the two previous coaches split their time with tennis and lacrosse, respectively – and had won just 12 games the previous two seasons, and turned it into a league powerhouse within four years. In 1998, she led Harvard to a first-round victory over top-seeded Stanford in the NCAA tournament, the first 16-over-1 upset in college basketball history. In 2000, she coached while undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
While Delaney-Smith announced in November that she would retire after the 2021-2022 season, this year would not be a gentle farewell tour. With a significantly undersized team and a starting five that had just five years of Harvard basketball between them, Delaney-Smith had to face one of her biggest challenges as a coach.
When people in the Ivy League basketball community discuss Delaney-Smith, the “GOAT,” or “greatest of all time,” label comes up often. Coming into this year, she already held by a wide margin the record for most wins of any coach, men’s or women’s, in the Ancient Eight. Leading her young squad to the Ivy League Tournament added yet another chapter to her remarkable legacy.
Despite the difficult journey this season posed, Delaney-Smith was perfectly equipped to overcome it.
“She’s had lots of experience with different types of teams,” junior guard Maggie McCarthy explained. “She is a great leader. She let us be role models for each other, giving the players a good leadership role.”
This experience came in handy, particularly in a Jan. 29 contest against Penn. Harvard fell down by as much as 13 points late in the third quarter, but the team remained composed, outscoring Penn 36-19 for the remainder of the game to win, 70-63. It marked the third of a five-game winning streak.
However, the team hit a slump shortly after, losing three consecutive games, all by single digits. The season was on the brink, but the Crimson responded with one of its best performances of the season, an 85-52 thrashing against Dartmouth to clinch a spot in the Ivy League Tournament.
For McCarthy, the key to the team’s success was the unique culture Coach Delaney-Smith has built. Throughout her remarkable career, she has consistently preached team unity.
“We had one of the best team cultures that I’ve ever been a part of,” McCarthy said. “We had no off-the-court drama, everyone got along really well on and off the court…We had this ‘refuse to lose’ mentality for Kathy. We stuck together through [everything].”
After dropping its final regular season game to a league-leading and nationally-ranked Princeton squad at home, the Crimson yet again regrouped and rebounded for their legendary head coach. Facing the same Tigers team before a packed Lavietes Pavilion in the postseason conference tournament, Harvard played with a tenacious energy and trailed their opponent by only three points at halftime.
The defensive effort of McCarthy, senior guard Tess Sussman, and the entire Crimson team was on full display, as was the elite shot-making ability of first-year guard Harmoni Turner and junior guard McKenzie Forbes. Forbes, in particular, converted an and-one layup on a fastbreak and notched a pair of free throws to tie the game with six minutes remaining. Although clutch shooting from Princeton, which advanced to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament later in March, was enough to oust Harvard at the final buzzer, the Crimson’s miraculous turnaround from the previous week brought an optimistic note to Delaney-Smith’s final moments at the helm.
“I know she’d want to leave with an Ivy championship, but she’s left the program in a great place,” said McCarthy. “We fought through a lot this year and stuck together through it all. I think that our record didn’t reflect how successful this season was and I think Kathy would say the same. She’s set up a great team for Coach [Carrie] Moore to take over [next season]. She created this basketball culture and this community of women, setting the foundation for our future growth.”
Delaney-Smith amassed 630 victories, won 11 Ivy League championships, and led Harvard to six NCAA Tournament appearances. Yet her most enduring legacy is found in the family she built through the Crimson women’s basketball program. With selflessness, courage, and her endearing sense of humor, Delaney-Smith has inspired countless players past, present, and future to play the game she loves.
Each home game this season, dozens of young girls watched Delaney-Smith lead her team from the sideline. Scores of former players returned to campus to honor her at “KDS Day” this past February, each wearing t-shirts with her mantra, “Act as If,” on the back. To Delaney-Smith, this maxim means to overcome the adversity and obstacles in the way of our goals by simply convincing ourselves they are surmountable. Let that be one final lesson the legendary Harvard women’s basketball coach can teach us all.
–Staff writer A.J. Dilts can be reached at email@example.com.
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–Staff writer Oscar E. Mercado can be reached at email@example.com.