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It looked like Harvard women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith had hit it the jackpot in November 2010 when she signed Temi Fagbenle, the Crimson’s first top-20 recruit in recent memory.
Only a year later, Delaney-Smith found out that her new recruit would be ineligible to play her freshman season in a Harvard jersey. According to the NCAA, Fagbenle, who came to the United States after her sophomore year of high school, stayed at Blair Academy in New Jersey for an extra year for athletic rather than academic purposes, making her eligible for only three years of college basketball.
But Fagbenle, Blair Academy, and Delaney-Smith tell a different story, calling her choice an academic decision. They also question the NCAA’s decision to use the GSCE exam, comparable to the PSAT, to determine her graduation date, meaning that Fagbenle can only suit up for the Crimson once she’s a sophomore.
“The NCAA is trying to get a handle on players coming from Europe,” Delaney-Smith says. “As you can imagine, a lot of those players do abuse the system and stay back to gain an athletic advantage.”
“[Temi] realized that the academics were different in both countries and so Blair Academy suggested she repeat her junior year because of academics,” Delaney-Smith continues. “At that time the NCAA instituted a rule to try to control everything and arbitrarily chose the GSCE as her graduation date. … That’s the wrong test to choose, and we put in a waiver and we were denied the waiver. It’s very wrong.”
Fagbenle feels particular anger at the decision because of her family’s long-standing prioritizing of academics over athletics, one of her main reasons for choosing Harvard.
“I thought it would be perfect for me both academically and athletically,” Fagbenle says. “Academics is always the focus for me and my family, so what better place than Harvard, right?”
For the Crimson, Fagbenle’s potential benching leaves a gap in the starting rotation.
“Temi is an impact player flat out,” Delaney-Smith says. “Temi can step on the floor and impact the game immediately. She’s probably in the top five of any college player I’ve ever coached right now. We have a whole system we’re using because she’s at the core of it.”
While Harvard tries to change the NCAA’s mind, Fagbenle continues to practice with the team. If the NCAA does not overturn its decision, Fagbenle would sit in residence for a year, training with the team and starting her sophomore season as a true sophomore.
“I wasn’t happy obviously,” Fagbenle says. “But it is what it is. Everything happens for a reason, so hopefully we can get this thing sorted out as soon as possible because I hate sitting on the bench.”
While Fagbenle lays in wait, the rest of her class is working to pick up the slack as Harvard deals with an unusual amount of injuries this preseason.
Leading the charge for the freshmen class will be guard Ali Curtis from Indiana, who grew up as a coach’s daughter and averaged 16 points per game in her senior season.
“She’s very Broganesque,” Delaney-Smith said. “She has a very good shot, she’s tough as nails, she’s very unselfish, she’s a coach’s daughter, and she shows all the same signs that [co-captain] Brogan [Berry] showed as a freshman.”
Also likely to see playing time this season is New Jersey resident Erin McDonell, whose 1529 career points led her high school to its first-ever state championship at the beginning of 2011.
“She’s very athletic, has a strong perimeter game, and is developing rapidly as a low post player,” Delaney-Smith says. “You can’t teach versatility. She’s got length, she’s got athleticism, and again she came in to Harvard with a great skill set.”
Rounding out the freshman class are Kaitlyn Dinkins from Atlanta, Georgia, and Christine Mansour from Naples, Florida. Delaney-Smith sees them helping the team rebound from the loss of last year’s senior class, which included stalwarts like Emma Markley, Christine Matera, Jackie Alemany, and Claire Wheeler.
“Christine [Mansour] has a great shooting touch, a tremendous jump shot you don’t see in a lot of women,” Delaney-Smith says. “Kaitlyn Dinkens has Christine Matera shooting ability. She’s a flat out shooter, period.”
In addition to the athletic ability this class brings to a Harvard squad missing the star power of Matera and Markley, Fagbenle says that the freshmen bring an endless persistence as well.
“[Our entire team] is relentless and that’s exactly what the five of us are,” she says. “We’re so different but I think that’s what makes us so close.”
As Harvard prepares for its upcoming games, including a matchup against a tough Princeton squad, the freshman class has found time to bond over its desire to eventually win an Ivy Championship.
“[Our goal is] not really to take last year’s seniors’ place but to add a new spark to the team,” Fagbenle says. “We’re five girls, so it’s definitely a lot of new players on the squad. Our goal is to contribute as much as we can and help get this team an Ivy championship and go to the NCAA Tournament.”
—Staff writer Alex Sopko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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