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John Harvard's Journal | Sports

A Hardwood Foundation

Young basketball teams’ seesaw seasons

May-June 2017

Katie Benzan ’20 was a first-team All-Ivy honoree and led the team in scoring (13.4 points per game) and assists (4.2 assists per game).

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications


Katie Benzan ’20 was a first-team All-Ivy honoree and led the team in scoring (13.4 points per game) and assists (4.2 assists per game).

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Co-captain Destiny Nunley ’17, an All-Ivy honorable mention designee. helped head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith lead the Crimson to a 21-9 overall record and a third-place finish in the Ivy League.

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications


Co-captain Destiny Nunley ’17, an All-Ivy honorable mention designee. helped head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith lead the Crimson to a 21-9 overall record and a third-place finish in the Ivy League.

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

Head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications


Head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith

Photograph courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

During the 2016-2017 season, a construction crew labored outside Lavietes Pavilion, the home of the Harvard basketball teams. Making incremental progress on a project to refurbish the 91-year-old building, the workers were mostly waiting for the season to end and the teams to vacate the premises, so they could gut the second-oldest arena in college basketball (see harvardmag.com/lavietes-redo-16).

The construction parallels the rebuilding projects under way this winter on the hardwood within. Both the women’s and men’s squads depended heavily on underclassmen: the men started four freshmen, and the women started two freshmen and a sophomore. These talented young players were striving for Ivy League championships, but they were also laying the foundation for several years of team growth. Among the goals for that growth: a twelfth Ivy League championship under the leadership of women’s head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, who just completed her thirty-fifth season leading the Crimson (see “‘Acting As If’ for 35 Seasons,” November-December 2016); and a deep NCAA tournament run for the men, whose seven freshmen were rated by ESPN as the country’s tenth-best recruiting class in 2016.

After both teams lost in the Ivy League tournament semifinals in March, what can the women (who finished the year 21-9 overall, 8-6 Ivy) and the men (18-10 overall, 10-4 Ivy) learn from their up-and-down seasons to build toward future gains?

 

After a middling 2015-2016 campaign during which the Crimson went 14-14 overall, Delaney-Smith welcomed a freshman class headlined by forward Jeannie Boehm—just the third McDonald’s All-American in conference history—and Katie Benzan, a highly touted point guard. Paired with a returning nucleus led by sophomore guard Madeline Raster and senior forward Destiny Nunley, the team had one of its most talented and balanced rosters in recent memory. 

During the first two-thirds of the season, the newcomers successfully demonstrated their potential. The year started with a 103-87 loss at Minnesota, but then the Crimson reeled off 16 consecutive wins, tying the longest streak in school history. The run included victories at Kansas (from the high-powered Big 12 Conference); against Temple, which earned a seven seed in the NCAA tournament; and four consecutive wins to start conference play.

Looking back, Delaney-Smith suggested that, ironically, the win streak may have “hurt us more than it helped us.” It raised the pressure and expectations on a young squad. And it camouflaged some weaknesses: inconsistency, turnovers, and rushed decisions. The Crimson won five games by five or fewer points and needed last-second heroics on several occasions—including a game-winner by Raster with 4.9 seconds left in a 70-68 home victory over Columbia.

Those flaws came into sharper relief during the last month of the season when the Crimson lost six of 10 games, including four against Penn and Princeton, the teams that finished ahead of Harvard in the Ivy standings. In those losses, a troubling trend emerged: if the Crimson’s shots were not falling, and the other team made a run, Delaney-Smith’s squad would fade. That happened in the Ivy tournament semifinals against Princeton. Harvard trailed by just one point (12-11) after the first quarter, but when the Crimson shot two for 14 from the field in the second period, the Tigers pulled away—ultimately, for a 68-47 victory. Among the factors separating the Quakers and Tigers from her own young players, the coach said, is the fact that “they believe in themselves.” 

The players had a chance to bolster their confidence when the Crimson received an at-large berth to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), the most prestigious tournament after the NCAAs. Harvard capitalized on that opportunity, defeating the University of New Hampshire 69-56 in the opening round, before falling to St. John’s University 62-57 in the round of 32. “The takeaway for those kids coming back,” said Delaney-Smith, “is you can play with anybody in the Ivy League and then some of the stronger teams in the country.”

 

The women began the season on a tear, but the men lost their first four games against Division I competition, including an 80-70 defeat by Stanford in the season opener in Shanghai. The setbacks left some wondering if Stemberg coach Tommy Amaker could get his large, talented roster—which included proven All-Ivy talents point guard Siyani Chambers ’16 (’17) and forward Zena Edosomwan ’17, along with the highly regarded freshmen—to coalesce. 

The team began to find its footing in a stretch from early December through late January, winning 10 of 11 games, including a 57-56 win over Houston, one of the Crimson’s best non-conference opponents, and a sweep of Dartmouth and a victory at Cornell to start Ivy play. Still, Harvard’s lone loss during that period—82-71 at Vermont, an NCAA tournament team—portended the difficulty of winning close games against more experienced squads on the road. 


Co-captain Siyani Chambers ’16 (’17), a first-team All-Ivy honoree, led a young Crimson squad to a second-place finish in the Ivy League before falling to Yale in the conference tournament semifinals.
Courtesy of Harvard Athletic Communications

That problem recurred repeatedly. During the remainder of the Ivy season, the Crimson won all but one home game but lost three road contests—including the last two games of the regular season, at Princeton and Penn. Harvard’s four Ivy losses came by a combined 11 points and, as Amaker said, stemmed in part from bad luck: three teams defeated the Crimson after hitting challenging last-second shots. Still, turnovers (18 in a 73-69 loss at Princeton in the penultimate game of the season), spells of ineffective play (the Crimson fell behind Princeton by nine or more points in both games), and a defense that was good but not great yielded a second-place finish for Harvard.

The conference tournament gave the Crimson another opportunity to compete for a coveted NCAA berth. But many of the same problems that undid the team in the regular season reappeared in a 73-71 loss to Yale in the semifinals. The players struggled to defend the paint; in the second half, the offense was anemic except for Bryce Aiken ’20, who scored 28 points; and although Harvard had just five turnovers, it gave the ball away on the final possession.

Although both teams fell short of this year’s goals, the women return Benzan, a first-team All-Ivy honoree; Boehm, who had seven blocks against St. John’s in the WNIT; and four starters. The men lose Edosomwan and Chambers, who garnered first-team all-conference honors, but bring back four freshmen starters, including their top two scorers, Aiken and Seth Towns ’20. When the refurbished Lavietes Pavilion reopens, fans can look forward not only to more modern amenities but also to two teams, with talented and tested nuclei, looking to make their own improvement to the spiffed-up arena: a pair of championship banners.

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