Rounding into Form

Harvard women’s basketball approaches a challenging Ivy slate.

All-Ivy point guard Katie Benzan '20 and head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith led Harvard to a 76-65 victory over Dartmouth on Saturday.
Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications

On New Year’s Eve, the Harvard women’s basketball team beat Stony Brook 60-53. Their record was 7-5 and they seemed to be heading into 2018 in fine form. But head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith recognized serious problems. Among them: her team “was not fluid offensively,” she said, and her players’ confidence was fragile. “If we play this way,” the coach predicted, “we will not be .500 in the Ivy League. Period. That’s a fact.”

After the Stony Brook game, she went around the locker room and asked each player to discuss what was hindering the team’s performance. The dialogue was time-consuming—the coaches did not leave the room for more than half an hour—but it kicked off a spirited week of practice that translated onto the court. Although Harvard fell the following weekend in its Ivy opener at Dartmouth, the Crimson swept its next two games: a 70-61 victory over LaSalle and, more significantly, a commanding 76-65 win over Dartmouth in Saturday’s rematch in Cambridge.

The wins improved Harvard’s record to 9-6 overall and 1-1 in Ivy play; now the team enters the heart of conference competition.

An Early-Season Hiccup—With A Silver Lining

Last year, the Crimson won 16 consecutive games (tied for a program record) to start 16-1. Then, they sputtered, losing six of their last 10 regular season games before falling to Princeton 68-47 in the Ivy League tournament.

At first, that sluggishness carried over. Opening the year in the Maine Tip-Off tournament, Harvard lost to the University of Dayton before getting throttled by the host Black Bears 76-51. Delaney-Smith was encouraged that her team pushed Dayton, a 12-seed in last year’s NCAA tournament, but was dismayed by the Maine blowout. She said, “Maine [was] your classic: we sat and watched them, and they looked very weak, and we just overlooked them.”

The sweep also alarmed co-captains Kirby Porter ’18 and Madeline Raster ’19, who convened afterward for dinner in Winthrop House to talk about what had happened. “We knew that we were a talented team,” Raster recalled, “but I think what we had to realize was that talent isn’t necessarily going to always win you games. You have to bring that talent together.”

The Crimson quickly did that, defeating Siena, Sacred Heart, and Boston University in a streak that showcased its diverse weapons: point guard Katie Benzan ’20—a first-team All-Ivy selection as a freshman—tallied 22 points against Siena; Jeannie Boehm ’20, a talented post player, recorded 16 points and 12 rebounds against Sacred Heart; and senior Taylor Rooks had 22 points and 11 rebounds against BU.

The turnaround also suggested a silver lining to the setback against Maine. Instead of last year’s long winning streak that collapsed into a string of letdowns, a disappointing loss early this year, Boehm pointed out, forced the team to confront its problem areas right away.

Tactical Challenges

During the remainder of non-conference play, the Crimson mostly performed well, defeating four mid-major opponents (North Carolina A&T, Northeastern, Akron, and Stony Brook) and playing competitively in losses against several higher-tier programs. This included nearly knocking off the University of Virginia—a member of the high-powered Atlantic Coast Conference—in a 50-48 loss in Charlottesville. The lone letdown came at Temple, another NCAA tournament team a year ago, which thrashed the Crimson 86-64 in Philadelphia. (The Owls may have had revenge on their minds after getting upset by the Crimson in Cambridge last year.)

Still, Delaney-Smith had concerns, especially after the tight win against Stony Brook. Opponents were finding ways to contain Benzan, who is a talented outside shooter and terrific ball handler but sometimes struggles to beat a defender one-on-one and generate her own shot. Teams were assigning tall or athletic defenders to guard her, forcing her to take difficult shots or give up the ball. That’s what happened against Stony Brook, where Benzan had just eight points on two-of-seven shooting.

The coach was also concerned about Boehm, the team’s most talented frontcourt player. Last year, the sophomore’s preferred post move was to use a fake and then come back to the right. Defenders were now looking for this and sliding with Boehm, which forced her to fade away from the basket. Complicating matters, she sometimes grew frustrated when she missed. The coaches had worked with her to diversify her post moves and stay even-keeled, but against the Seawolves, Boehm missed a couple of shots and reverted to her familiar move. She finished the game with just six points.

Finally, the coach lamented her team’s lack of emotional intensity, something she attributed to “fluctuating levels of confidence.” Sometimes the team failed to celebrate successful plays; this impassivity was part of what prompted the coach’s warning about Ivy play.

Ivy Play Begins

At first, it looked like Delaney-Smith’s fears would come true. In the Ivy League opener at Dartmouth, Boehm picked up two fouls in the first three minutes and sat for most of the first half; Benzan managed just six points on two-of-eight shooting; and the Big Green opened up a 12-point halftime lead en route to a 63-56 win. Delaney-Smith called the loss a “perfect storm” but emphasized, “We have enough talent to weather all of that. We just did not.”

The Crimson bounced back four days later against LaSalle and put together one of its best performances of the season in Saturday’s rematch with Dartmouth. Benzan had 20 points and made six three pointers, several of which came on nifty plays where she dribbled past or used screens to get around aggressive defenders. On the inside, Boehm stuffed the box score with 16 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. She also looked far more comfortable in the post, finishing a variety of moves with her left and right hands.

There was still room for improvement (for instance, Dartmouth shot 13 of 27 from three-point range). Still, the Crimson’s energy was palpable. “I loved how my team played,” said Delaney-Smith. “It wasn’t perfect, but it was so unselfish. And it was all the blue-collar work that I’m looking for.”

The Crimson will need to sustain that intensity as it enters six consecutive weekends of back-to-back Ivy League games. The conference is currently ranked ninth nationally out of 32 leagues in the Rating Percentage Index. (The RPI ranks teams and leagues based on their win-loss records and strength of schedule.) It also features several teams—Princeton (48), Harvard (89), and Brown (90)—in the top-100 of RPI team rankings. The Crimson is in the thick of the Ivy League title hunt, but the competition will be fierce, beginning with home games next weekend against Yale and Brown, both of which are also 1-1 in Ivy League play.

Alumnae Weekend and Coaching Endowment Update

Dozens of former women’s basketball players returned to Cambridge January 19 for the team’s alumnae weekend. The festivities featured an alumnae game on Saturday and receptions on Friday and Saturday evenings. The alumnae also discussed making a final push to endow the women’s basketball head coaching position. According to Catherine Crisera ’96, who is spearheading the effort with former teammate and classmate Amy Reinhard, the alumnae entered the weekend just $107,000 short of the $2-million threshold. (During the weekend they raised another  $25,000 in pledges, with more in the works.)

There are many reasons to endow the position. Crisera cited Delaney-Smith’s impact on and off the court: now in her thirty-sixth year at Harvard, she is the winningest coach in Ivy League history. “There is absolutely an underlying thought that the women’s basketball position, particularly because of the legacy that Kathy has, needs to be fully endowed, just like the men’s basketball position and other women’s and men’s coaching positions at Harvard,” Crisera said. “And that is surely driven by some sense of justice because of the record that she has amassed over the years and the quality of players that she has attracted.”

Harvard Men’s Basketball Update

The men’s basketball team defeated Dartmouth 62-57 in overtime in Hanover on Saturday. The Crimson (7-10 overall, 2-0 Ivy) were led by Seth Towns ’20, who had 26 points and six rebounds and sank a pair of free throws with 2.8 seconds remaining to send the game into overtime. The win gave Stemberg men’s coach Tommy Amaker his two-hundredth victory at Harvard.

The Crimson were again without leading scorer Bryce Aiken ’20, who has missed six of the last seven games with a knee injury.

Read more articles by David L. Tannenwald

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