For the third time this season, Harvard (13-14, 7-7) fell to No. 24 Princeton (25-5, 14-0). Unlike the two previous contests, this Ivy Madness matchup was a barn burner, with both offenses excelling in the clutch. The Crimson rallied late but ran out of gas, losing by a score of 72-67 in its final game of the season.
“They left it on the floor,” said head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, whose remarkable 40-year career came to an end in the loss. “I wanted them to win for them, and they wanted to win for me. That makes the whole package very emotional… I can't be more proud, they played their hearts out.”
Indeed, the team’s effort exceeded that which it displayed in its previous outings against Princeton. Harvard’s tandem of junior guard McKenzie Forbes and first-year guard Harmoni Turner again led the team offensively, scoring 22 and 19 points, respectively. Sophomore guard Lola Mullaney contributed many momentum baskets that kept Harvard in the game when the team was on the brink of defeat. This massive team effort allowed Harvard to give Princeton its toughest challenge yet within the conference: Princeton had beat every team in the Ivy League by double digits.
Princeton’s defense shined in the first quarter, forcing Harvard into a rough start to the pivotal playoff matchup. In the first ten minutes, Harvard shot poorly from the field, 4-for-15, and the team committed 5 turnovers. Despite the initial struggle, Forbes’ seven points in the period, including a deep triple off a nifty dish by Turner, carried the Crimson, which found itself only down 19-13 to the Tigers after the first quarter.
Mullaney got the ball rolling in the second quarter, hitting back-to-back field goals that ignited a 16-6 run by Harvard to take a 32-25 lead. The run ended off back-to-back triples from Mullaney and Forbes. Princeton’s Abby Meyers responded to Harvard’s onslaught with an off-balance three-pointer and stepback jumper, then an assist on a triple to retake the lead 33-32. The Tigers then continued their momentum, as Princeton’s Kaitlyn Chen knocked down a stepback jumper as time expired to conclude a 10-0 run that gave the Tigers a 35-32 advantage over the Crimson at the half.
The Tigers continued their hot streak to start off the third quarter. Two quick field goals by Meyers sparked an 11-2 run for Princeton to extend its lead to 46-34. Harvard’s duo quickly responded with a contested jumper by Forbes and an off-balance triple by Turner to cut the lead to single digits. The teams traded baskets to reach the score 52-41, then both teams' defenses clamped down. The final three minutes of the quarter was a defensive gridlock, with neither team able to buy a bucket. Harvard ended the standoff with a triple, courtesy of junior guard Maggie McCarthy, to cut the lead to eight as the quarter concluded.
With the pressure mounting, Harvard came out of the gates firing in the fourth quarter. Turner drilled a deep, stepback three-pointer, then Forbes muscled her way into the lane for a tough and-one layup. Meyers scored a jumper for the Tigers, but Forbes quickly responded with an assist to McCarthy. Forbes once again drew another foul, this time on a three point attempt, going 2-for-3 on the charity stripe to tie the game at 54-54.
“They amaze me,” said Delaney-Smith when asked about her team’s resilience despite losing to a team that had beaten them twice previously. “We’re down, we made a mistake and played horribly. And they just find this connection and work out this synergy.”
Princeton responded once more, embarking on a 12-4 run to take a 66-58 lead late in the game and send the Crimson’s season to the brink. Harvard remained resilient: a jumper by Turner, free throws from Forbes, and a neat assist from Mullaney to junior guard Annie Stritzel got the Crimson within two. After two free throws by Princeton, Stritzel returned the favor to Mullaney, finding her for a deep contested three to make it a one-point game. Unfortunately for Harvard, that was the closest the team got; the Crimson’s offense stalled as the team ultimately succumbed to the Tigers, 72-67.
“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs this season,” Forbes reflected. “Through all of it, we tried to stick together. No matter what happens we play together and stick together to the end. I think we really do embody that as teammates… [it’s] a testament to the coaching staff and the type of culture we have here.”
The team now hopes that the culture and experiences it has built this year will translate to more success next season. The team will go into next season missing its central piece in Delaney-Smith, who has dedicated the last 40 years to creating a successful program at Harvard, winning 11 conference titles and nearly 69 percent of her conference games in becoming the winningest head coach in Ivy League history. Although she will no longer be on the sidelines, Delaney-Smith affirmed that she will continue to support the team. The 2021-22 season ended in heartbreak, but the loss will serve as fuel for the next season of Harvard women’s basketball.
— Staff writer Oscar E. Mercado can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.