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You better “believe it.”
The 2023 Harvard women’s basketball team (20-12, 9-5 Ivy League) made history this past weekend by playing in the Great Eight of the NCAA Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) for the first time in program history. The Crimson traveled to the Big Apple to meet familiar Ivy adversary Columbia for the fourth time this season, though Harvard wasn’t able to fend off the Lions, losing in a close six-point game by the score of 77-71.
The Crimson first made its mark in the history books when it defeated the University of Massachusetts in a two-point matchup in Amherst, Mass., giving it a ticket to the third round of the WNIT for the first time ever. Harvard kept the ball rolling in a win over the University of Rhode Island at Lavietes Pavilion, beating the Rams 74-63 in a back-and-forth battle. Back in November, Harvard faced Rhode Island in its second game of the season, emerging with an 88-74 triumph.
This win also made head coach Carrie Moore the winningest first-year head coach for the Crimson with 20 victories. Coach Moore was a new addition to Harvard women’s basketball after the retirement of long-time head coach for Harvard Kathy Delaney-Smith. Moore has led Harvard to its most successful season despite it being her first year as coach, let alone the string of injuries the team endured this season.
“I think that says a lot about our team as a unit,” said senior captain and guard McKenzie Forbes. “Coach Moore has always said, ‘all we got is all we need’ — we had to apply that a lot this year, whether that's being out for injury, not having practice players, or whatever the case may be — we've always felt like all we have is all we need, right here in this program with us.”
This season, Harvard was forced to play several games in the late Fall through January with only seven to eight dressed players, putting an extensive amount of pressure on active players. Despite the odds, these players, such as first-year Katie Krupa and star sophomore guard Harmoni Turner, did not disappoint.
“We're super gritty. We just work hard,” Forbes commented. “We find ways to get the job done, no matter who we're up against or who we have suited up on our end.”
After the Crimson prevailed over the Rams, Harvard awaited its quarterfinal lot based on the Columbia-Syracuse game, from which the Lions came out on top, likewise sending them to the Great Eight. This Columbia team has completely reinvented itself, rebuilding into a strong program after winning only nine combined games between the 2016 and 2018 seasons.
In the first game Harvard played against Columbia in mid-January, the Lions trounced the Crimson 82-56. However, Harvard did not let the New York school have it so easy the second time around, falling to the Lions in a five-point match at home on February 17.
Columbia poured in over 150 points between the two games, more than 30 of which were off second-chance buckets. The Crimson also committed 44 personal fouls.
The stats don’t tell the full story, though.
“The first time we played them, we lost one of our starters to injury, and then another one of our players was hurt,” junior guard Lola Mullaney said. “It was kind of a weird game.”
The second time around, the Crimson held on until late. They put together a fourth-quarter rally, outsourcing the Lions 33-24 in the final frame, but ultimately fell 75-70.
Columbia has put together two strong seasons, boasting a 12-2 conference record both this year and last. The team also made the final of the 2022 Ivy Madness Tournament, losing to Princeton 77-59, which went on to win the tournament. Harvard defeated Columbia 72-65 in an overtime thriller in the 2023 Ivy Madness Tournament on March 10 before losing to Princeton.
“We know each other very well, on both sides — everyone is very aware of players' tendencies and things like that,” said Forbes when asked about the competition between Harvard and Columbia. “I think it just comes down to grit, toughness, and who can execute down the stretch. I don't think it's anything about strategy. It's kind of a game of chess, but I think it just comes down to the execution when it matters most.”
For the Crimson, locking in on defense just might be the key to turning things around in its next season.
“We know each other really well on the court,” Forbes said. “I think that shows up in our offense, which is why we've been able to put up some of the points in this postseason tournament run.”
“I think defensively, we have to be a bit better,” the senior captain continued. “I think we were pretty solid against Rhode Island in the second half. But I think [we need to] start games with more stops to be able to contain the other team for 40 minutes.”
Though Harvard was unable to clinch a semifinal pass to the WNIT tournament, this season will go down in history, all while a new coach stood at the helm. With Forbes and senior guard and captain Maggie McCarthy departing after the season, up-and-coming first-years and sophomores, equipped with strong postseason experience, will be critical to Harvard’s campaign to return to the top of the Ivy League and to the NCAA Tournament
“If you have this freshman group that came in this year and we made a deep run — that's the standard for them. And they're gonna know nothing different,” Forbes said. “So by the time that they’re seniors, the class below them and below that will have that standard set – that's important.”
“You're building a winning culture. I'm super grateful to be a part of the group that's kind of set that tone for the years to come,” the captain continued. “As far as building winning programs goes, to sit in that culture and that standard of play: we play deep into March, we play in the postseason, and we win games.
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