Elena Rodriguez Steps Up

Harvard basketball’s Spanish star meets changing expectations.

Elena Rodriguez dribbling the basketball up the court

Her coach calls Elena Rodriguez a “quarterback on the floor.” | Photograph courtesy of harvard athletics communications

In early December, the Harvard women’s basketball team was leading Michigan by one point at the end of the first quarter, when the Crimson’s star point guard Harmoni Turner ’25 brought the ball across half court. Discarding a defender with a crossover dribble, she launched a high-arcing three-pointer that sank through the net at the buzzer. The sellout crowd at Lavietes Pavilion roared—the Crimson had the momentum against a marquee opponent. But toward the middle of the second quarter, with Harvard ahead 28-20, Turner hurt her knee. She would undergo surgery and the team announced she would be out indefinitely.

Without their leading scorer, a first-team all-Ivy player, the Crimson fell to the Wolverines and dropped three of their next four games. Suddenly, the team’s non-conference finale at the University of Delaware on New Year’s Eve became pivotal. The game started poorly, with Harvard missing its first three shots and turning the ball over. Then, with a little over eight minutes left in the first quarter, junior guard Elena Rodriguez seized control. Feinting with the ball beyond the three-point line, she dribbled to the basket, squeezed between two defenders, and drew a foul. She sank a free throw to get Harvard its first point, before making a layup and three-pointer on the next possessions. Single-handedly outscoring Delaware in the first half 22 to 19, Rodriguez finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, three steals, and two blocks in Harvard’s 88-58 win.

In that game, she was nearly flawless (she made 11 of 14 field goal attempts, including all five of her threes), but this dominant performance belies the difficult path for Rodriquez, a native of Spain, to acclimate to college basketball and become an assertive star. How did she emerge as one of the league’s best players, and can she sustain her aggressiveness to help Harvard (8-6 overall, 1-0 Ivy) capture its first conference championship since 2008?

Elena Rodriguez with a basketball
Elena Rodriguez | PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF HARVARD ATHLETICS COMMUNICATIONS

 

Growing up in the Canary Islands, Rodriguez dabbled in karate, ballet, gymnastics, swimming, and track and field before trying out for her town’s basketball team when she was seven. She liked the camaraderie, and basketball runs in her family (her grandmother played, her aunt and father competed professionally, and her older sister—whom she calls her role model—took up the sport). At 14, she earned a spot on a youth Spanish national team, and in 2019, after she excelled at the U16 European Championship, American colleges began recruiting her. Rodriguez stood out because of her versatility. At six-foot-two, she is tall enough to guard forwards but has the agility to defend guards. On offense, she combines deft footwork near the basket with exceptional court vision. Harvard offered the best opportunity.

Arriving on campus in fall 2021 was a culture shock. When she learned the dining halls closed at 7:30 p.m., she wondered: “When am I supposed to have dinner?” Academically, she had to rewatch lectures (which are now recorded) to “get the whole picture,” and on the court, she was adjusting to the physical style of play. Spanish coaches emphasized spacing, but now she was sprinting and lifting to prepare for guarding bigger players. “It looks like a different sport,” says Rodriguez, who averaged just nine minutes per game that season, “even though it’s basketball.”

Kathy Delaney Smith’s retirement as head coach in 2022 represented another transition. Her successor, Delaney-Smith head coach Carrie Moore, recalled that as soon as she was hired that April, she heard from Rodriguez’s Spanish coaches, who emphasized how the young player could help the team. In Rodriguez’s freshman year, Delaney-Smith had used a “five-out offense” that began plays with five players on the outside. But Moore wanted to balance that with an interior presence. Rodriguez—who spent the summer of 2022 in Spain scrimmaging against men to simulate the physicality of college basketball—can play near the basket or be a “quarterback on the floor,” passing from the perimeter to teammates toward the basket. Beginning her sophomore year as the team’s first substitute off the bench, Rodriguez became a starter when guard Gabby Anderson ’26 tore her anterior cruciate ligament.

Still, Rodriguez—who earned an all-Ivy honorable mention at the end of the 2022-2023 regular season—had to prove her grit. A post-season matchup with the University of Rhode Island in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT) became a turning point. The Rams relied on a six-foot-five center and a six-foot-two forward. These were the kinds of bruising players with whom Rodriguez had struggled previously, but late in the game, her steals and deflections helped seal the win. “I knew it was going to be a battle,” Rodriguez said afterward, shortly before taking a question from a reporter in Spanish.

Last summer, Rodriguez competed for Spain in the U20 European Championship in Lithuania, and Moore made the trip. She cheered Rodriguez, dined with her family, and gleaned tactics for the Crimson. Harvard would need Rodriguez to score more this season, Moore said, especially since team captain and powerful scorer McKenzie Forbes ’23 had graduated. For Rodriguez, this required a mindset shift. “She thinks part of her playing well is…finding her teammates,” the coach explains, referring to how Rodriguez throws breathtaking no-look passes. But this season, she is sometimes the “number-one option” to receive important passes. Moore sent Rodriguez film of A’ja Wilson, a talented, aggressive WNBA player whom she might emulate. “It was great,” Moore says, “to see it all come together against Delaware.”

Last Saturday, Harmoni Turner returned for the Ivy League opener against Yale. Before the game, Moore urged Rodriguez not to change her style of play just because the star point guard was back in the lineup. Against the Bulldogs, Turner scored the Crimson’s first 10 points, and led the team with 28 points in a 73-54 win; Rodriguez scored just two points, and senior Lola Mullaney, another all-Ivy guard, was scoreless. To Moore, it was encouraging that Turner picked up where she left off and that Harvard won comfortably despite limited scoring from Rodriguez and Mullaney. But, she said, the team needed “to figure ourselves out a little bit offensively.”

Eventually, Rodriguez—a psychology concentrator minoring in economics—hopes to play professionally in Europe with her sister. For now, she and her teammates are focused on preparing for Saturday’s game with Princeton, in a rematch of last year’s Ivy tournament championship.

Read more articles by: David L. Tannenwald

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