A Decisive Postseason Victory—and Now a Third (Updated)
Last April, shortly after she was hired, Carrie Moore, the Delaney-Smith head coach of women’s basketball, held her first workouts with the team. Defense, she emphasized, was paramount. Last night that message seemed to have gotten through. Harvard played Towson University in the opening round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), and won decsively. After the game, guard Lola Mullaney ’24 recalled, “we were getting yelled at that we had to be in the gaps more”—defend spaces where opponents might try to pass after making drives to the basket—and so, with one second left in the first half, Mullaney did just that. Stealing the ball, she drew a foul and sank two free throws to cap an 11-0 run that gave the Crimson a 43-32 lead (their first double-digit advantage) heading into halftime. From there, Harvard didn’t look back, demolishing the Tigers 103-63 to advance to the second round, where they will play the winner of tonight’s game between the University of Massachusetts and University of Albany.
Updated March 24, 8:35 a.m.: On Thursday evening, Harvard defeated the University of Rhode Island 74-63 in the third round of the WNIT. The Crimson were led by Elena Rodriguez ’25 (who had 16 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists). Harvard will next play in the WNIT Great Eight against the winner of Friday’s game between Columbia and Syracuse. This is the first time in program history that they have reached the fourth round of a postseason event.
Updated March 21, 2023, 6:45 a.m.: On Monday evening, Harvard defeated the University of Massachusetts 89-87 in the second round of the WNIT in Amherst. The Crimson were led by McKenzie Forbes ’23 (who had 24 points and six assists) and avenged a November loss to the Minutewomen. Harvard will next face the University of Rhode Island (whom they beat in the season opener in November) in the WNIT Super 16 on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Lavietes Pavilion. This is the first time in program history that they have reached the third round of a post-season event.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletics
Had last weekend’s Ivy League Tournament at Princeton played out just a bit differently, the Crimson might have been playing in the more-prestigious NCAA Tournament instead. The third-seeded Crimson had upset Columbia (which shared the regular-season title with Princeton) in overtime to advance to the championship game, a first for the program in the modern version of the Ivy tournament. But then, in the final against Princeton, Harvard gave up an 11-point lead in the second half and lost 54-48. Afterward, Moore noted a similar pattern to Harvard’s 51-47 loss at Princeton in February. “We were in the same situation here two weeks ago, and I thought we had learned what that requires to come out of here with a win,” she said. Lamenting that her team needed to improve at finishing games, she added, “We’ve still got some growing up to do.”
On Sunday, Harvard received an at-large bid to the WNIT. Moore described the transition from nearly reaching the NCAAs to preparing for the WNIT as an “emotional rollercoaster.” “We experienced the highest of highs on Friday beating Columbia,” she said, “and then the lowest of lows less than 24 hours later.” She gave the team two days off before returning to practice on Tuesday, and even then there were tears. “I think our seniors are still getting over it,” she said.
But the coach identified one silver lining: those tough experiences can bind a group together, forming a connection the team is able to lean on in difficult moments. A case in point came early in the game against Towson. The Tigers’ employed a trapping full-court press, similar to the defense Princeton had used to flummox the Crimson, and Harvard coughed up the ball several times, allowing Towson to go on an 11-0 run and take a 16-5 lead late in the first quarter.
Moore called a timeout to refocus her team. Afterward, Mullaney (who had a game high 22 points) drained a three-pointer, and Harvard closed the quarter on a 7-2 run to slice Towson’s lead to six. The Crimson sustained that momentum in the second quarter, grabbing a double-digit lead going into halftime. Point guard Harmoni Turner ’25 shone, scoring eight points and dishing out six assists, including a no-look pass to McKenzie Forbes ’23 for a layup.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletics
In the third quarter, Harvard put the game out of reach, in part because its aggressive defense allowed the team to score easy points in transition. With just over six minutes left in the quarter, Turner (who leads the team in steals) poked the ball away from a Tigers player and took off for a fast break layup that put Harvard up 53-37. By the start of fourth quarter, with Harvard leading 78-44, the only drama was whether Turner would get a triple-double and whether Harvard would score more than 100 points. The sophomore settled the first question when she snagged a rebound with 7:24 remaining—she finished with 21 points, 13 assists, and 10 rebounds, making her just the sixth player in Ivy League history to record a triple double. Then, with just under two minutes left, Maggie McCarthy ’23 sank a three pointer to put Harvard over the century mark, and Moore—who has relied on a seven-player rotation—emptied her bench.
After the game, the coach noted that the team has an chance to make history: the Crimson have never advanced past the second round of a post-season tournament. (In 1998, Harvard upset top-seeded Stanford in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, and the Crimson have reached the WNIT second round five times but never won.) The players have their sights set on a higher goal: to “win a championship,” as Turner said. Either way, while Harvard prepares for its next game (which could be as soon as Saturday or as late as Tuesday), the team can enjoy the fact that they are playing meaningful basketball in March. And, as an announcement on the Lavietes Pavilion jumbotron showed during the game, season tickets are already on sale for the 2023-2024 season.