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Sports

Post-Season’s End

3.19.17

Jeannie Boehm ’20 (shown here against UNH in the first round of the WNIT) scored 11 points and blocked seven shots in the Crimson’s loss to St. John’s in the second round of the tournament.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications


Jeannie Boehm ’20 (shown here against UNH in the first round of the WNIT) scored 11 points and blocked seven shots in the Crimson’s loss to St. John’s in the second round of the tournament.
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Kathy Delaney-Smith led the Crimson to the WNIT for the seventh time in team history, the most of any Ivy League program. 
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications


Kathy Delaney-Smith led the Crimson to the WNIT for the seventh time in team history, the most of any Ivy League program. 
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Katie Benzan ’20 (also shown in action against UNH) led the Crimson with 13 points in the second round game against St. John’s. 
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications


Katie Benzan ’20 (also shown in action against UNH) led the Crimson with 13 points in the second round game against St. John’s. 
Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

On Sunday afternoon, with a little over three minutes left in their matchup with St. John’s University in the second round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), the Harvard women’s basketball team appeared to have the Red Storm right where they wanted them. After trailing by as many as 13 points, the Crimson had cut the deficit to two (53-51), and first-team All-Ivy point guard Katie Benzan ’20 had the ball in her hands, just beyond the three-point line. On Friday, in Harvard’s opening-round victory at the University of New Hampshire, the freshman floor general had set the program record for three-pointers in a season; and as she let it fly on Sunday, she appeared poised to shoot the Crimson into the WNIT Sweet 16 for the first time in program history. Unfortunately, the shot missed everything but the backboard, St. John’s grabbed the rebound, and the Red Storm held on for a 62-57 victory that ended the Crimson’s post-season run.

On Friday, following the Crimson’s 69-56 win over the Wildcats, head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith emphasized that she was “not afraid” of playing against St. John’s, a member of the high-powered Big East Conference. Her optimism was understandable: after shooting just 28 percent from the field against Princeton in the Ivy League tournament semifinals, the Crimson had rediscovered their stroke against the Wildcats, shooting 52 percent from the field and getting a near-perfect performance from senior co-captain Destiny Nunley (who made nine of 10 field-goal attempts and led the Crimson with 19 points).

But on Sunday, the Crimson’s shooting woes reemerged. The team scored just nine points in the first quarter and missed a number of open shots, including several layups. In the second quarter, Harvard’s defense helped to keep the team in the game (with St. John’s frontcourt players in foul trouble, the Crimson switched to a zone defense and dared the Red Storm to beat them from the outside). Still, Harvard entered the locker room down six points (32-26), and Delaney-Smith expressed frustration that her team’s hot shooting in New Hampshire had not extended to Queens less than 48 hours later. She said, “We’re at a point in the season, where from a coach’s perspective, it’s, ‘Which team are we going to be coaching?’”

The Crimson began to find its stroke in the second half thanks to the strong post play of freshman forward Jeannie Boehm. Against UNH on Friday, Boehm had shot just one for seven from the field, continuing a recent trend in which she had struggled to finish her post moves. Against St. John’s, however, Boehm delivered, shooting five for six from the floor and scoring on a series of nifty post moves and a short jumper that allowed the Crimson to cut the deficit to four (38-34) with a little over five minutes left in the third quarter.

With the Red Storm now concerned about Harvard’s interior presence, they could no longer key in on the Crimson’s perimeter threats, especially Benzan, who played all 40 minutes, led the Crimson with 13 points (including a pair of three-pointers in the fourth quarter), and nearly shot the team to victory. Unfortunately, the team was ultimately undone by problems that have plagued it throughout the last month of the season: youth and inconsistency. Harvard outplayed St. John’s in the second and fourth quarters, but their slow start precluded the upset. “It’s a lost opportunity for us,” said Delaney-Smith, “because we could’ve been in the Sweet 16. Clearly could’ve been in the Sweet 16.”

Although disappointing, this suggests how much potential the Crimson has in seasons to come. Harvard graduates just one regular rotation player (senior co-captain Destiny Nunley) and returns Benzan, Boehm, and a trio of talented sophomore backcourt players in Madeline Raster, Sydney Skinner, and Nani Redford. Paired with junior forwards Taylor Rooks (a transfer from Stanford) and Kirby Porter (a starter), the Crimson (which finished the year 21-9 overall, 8-6 Ivy) will have a talented core and, for the first time in many years, an experienced one. “The takeaway for those kids coming back,” added Delaney-Smith, “is you can play with anybody in the Ivy League and then some of the stronger teams in the country. You need to know that you go can toe to toe with them.”

Now, the question is whether the Crimson players can complement their skill and experience with the intangibles—confidence, consistency, and chemistry—that will lead to a winning culture and position the program to capture its twelfth Ivy championship. “You can wallow in that and let it get under your skin,” said Delaney-Smith of the team’s near miss against St. John’s, “or you can turn that into the silver lining and say, ‘OK, that’s very exciting about moving forward.’”

Editor’s note: Look for David Tannenwald’s recap of the men’s and women’s basketball seasons in the May-June Harvard Magazine.

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