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‘Believe It’: Harvard Women’s Basketball Fights Back Against Consistent Injuries

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The 2022-23 Harvard women’s basketball team (12-7 overall, 5-2 Ivy League) is not what it used to be: with a new coaching staff, four first-year players, and frequent injuries, this season has surely been a test of its ability to adapt to incessant change.

Despite having a different starting lineup in nearly every game for the past few months, the team has managed to find consistent success. Its Ivy season commenced with a 67-59 defeat of Princeton on December 31 before securing another league victory under its belt, a mighty 30-point win against Brown on January 6, 89-59.

But Harvard’s wins have not come without some grit. With 14 players on the roster, only seven to eight have been able to dress for the majority of the games, leaving Head Coach Carrie Moore a short rotation in her first year leading the Crimson. This has put an extensive amount of pressure on the active players since Ivy games are important deciders for which of the Ancient Eight will make it to the league’s tournament in mid-March, which will be hosted by Princeton this year.

“We had seven [players] against Dartmouth and that was tough,” team captain and senior guard Maggie McCarthy recalled. “I remember our coaches were like, ‘We just have to get through this.’ They’re important wins right now at this point in the season, we’re trying to get everyone healthy for the end of the season, including myself.”

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McCarthy, who is also a midfielder for the Harvard women’s lacrosse team, suffered a foot injury in November at an 85-63 loss to Purdue in the Cancun Challenge tournament in Mexico, putting her on the bench for the entire month of December. In an unlucky play, the captain fractured her foot by stepping on another player’s foot when changing directions but ended up playing on it for the rest of the game.
This fracture was not the end of the Medfield native’s injuries in her final season for the Crimson. At Harvard’s most recent 66-53 triumph against Cornell — in which only eight players dressed — McCarthy broke her wrist just after her foot healed. In an attempt to draw a charge on defense, a Big Red opponent knocked the senior down, forcing her to use her wrist to break the fall. Despite the break, she wrapped it up and returned to the court, playing the remainder of the game somewhat one-handed.

“When I had my foot injury, I was like ‘Oh okay, I’ll be back for [the] Ivy League [season],’” the captain said. “It's kind of what you work for the whole year, and just because we’re so well matched up and so much goes into it.”

“It just reiterates the fact that every Ivy game is so important because the standings get so close, so every win matters and it makes it that much more competitive.”

Currently, the Crimson has only two injured bodies: McCarthy and first-year guard Gabby Anderson. Naturally, these two players happen to be two of the team’s strongest starters. Anderson, a first-year guard hailing from Columbus, Ohio, tore her ACL at the beginning of the fall, keeping her off the court for the rest of the year. This ebb and flow of injury and recovery have encapsulated the team’s rhythm thus far.

“That's been the theme of the season, honestly – people are in and out, so it's kind of like winning anyway we can at this point – it doesn’t really matter what it looks like. Just be tough, go out there, and play for the people that are injured.”

In particular, one challenge Harvard has faced is not knowing which players will suit up for a given game, while other teams have the benefit of playing with a consistent starting lineup. McCarthy noted that this has been a particular trial for Harvard’s offense.

“If you play with the same people over the course of three months, your offense is going to flow and look so good because you know where each other are. The fact that literally every week in practice and every game we don’t know who’s suiting up has changed so much, but we’re still able to find that chemistry.”

Most recently, Harvard delivered a 24-point victory over Penn on January 28. In a game staffed with many fans and students, the Crimson seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd. But the captain credits that win to the preparation they did in practice that week.

“How we play in that game is based on how we prepare in practice that week,” McCarthy commented. “I think this week we were super hype, super connected, we had a lot of good competitive drills in practice, and we were competing.”

Perhaps that is what has kept the team chemistry despite all of the adversity faced this season: sticking to the competition in practices.

“I think that competition brings out the best athletes in us and that turns into chemistry,” McCarthy reflected. “Competition brings out good team chemistry.”

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Due to the myriad of injuries, the Crimson has run through many possible starting line-ups, meaning that most of its roster is comfortable playing with one another and in strenuous situations. This type of conditioning may lead to increased agility and adaptability ahead of the Ivy games near the end of this season when more players return to full health.

“The hope is that, by the end of the season, we have as many healthy bodies as we can – that will make the win so much sweeter,” the senior guard said. “That’s even what gets me through my injury now, is still believing or visualizing winning in the end – it'll all be worth it.”

But at the helm of these challenges has been a new coaching staff, spearheaded by Coach Carrie Moore — one that has brought excitement, new energy, and motivation, keeping the team in an upward direction no matter the game at hand.

“They came in really ambitious, in a good way,” McCarthy reflected. “We’ve always wanted to win a championship here, so I think having the new coaching staff on board with that is really great this year.”

Moore was named the head coach for Harvard last spring, taking over for long-time Harvard legend Kathy Delaney-Smith. The Michigan native, who has a long resume of accomplishments in athletics and even led the nation in scoring her senior year at Western Michigan University, refuses to let adversity get to her players’ heads.

“Our team saying, what Coach Moore came in with, is ‘Believe it,’” McCarthy said. “We have that on some of our gear and we say it in all of our huddles before we break.”

“I think just really believing despite all of the adversity we’ve faced — believing in the process and believing we can win a championship — that’s what keeps us together, even in the hard times.”

Many of the Crimson’s starters and leading scorers air on the younger side. Sophomore guard Harmoni Turner averages a team-high 17.6 points per game, while her backcourt-mate and fellow sophomore Elena Rodriguez has increased her scoring average from 2.0 in the 2021-2022 season to 11.6 this year. Though these newer players have had to face a learning curve of adjusting to collegiate basketball, older players have had to adapt to a new program direction entirely: one aimed at an Ivy League championship win. The emergence of younger players, such as first-year guard Saniyah Glenn-Bello, has encouraged senior guard McKenzie Forbes and junior guard Lola Mullaney to elevate their games, as well.

But with the injuries has arisen a new type of leadership from the team: injured players stepping into the role of student coaches. Senior guard Annie Stritzel has built a strong career for the Crimson program, first emerging as a versatile scorer and tough defensive player as a first-year in 2019-2020. This March, however, Stritzel announced she had been managing the pain of a diagnosed, career-ending ankle injury since her arrival in Cambridge. With the injury mounting in severity throughout last season, Stritzel will be unable to take the floor for Harvard in her final year of eligibility. But her ankle injury has not stopped her from pivoting into a new, crucial role for her team.

“[Stritzel] can’t play anymore, so she’s kind of like a player-coach for us,” McCarthy said. “But she has been so invested, so involved, and such a great role model for the younger players too. Having that player-coach role is really valuable to us.”

Next up for the Crimson is a weekend road trip to New Haven where it will seek revenge against the Bulldogs. When Harvard last met Yale, a single point kept the Crimson from winning in a 71-70 battle on the court.

When asked about that game, McCarthy joked, “Don’t bring it up.”

“We’re going to get our revenge,” the captain declared. “It will be very similar to the way we went into Penn. We know it's a huge game, [we’re] definitely in the stretch right now, we have seven more Ivy League games — every win matters.”

This time around, it seems that the Crimson have been armed with healthier bodies and an idea of what it is up against in Connecticut.

“I don’t know if we went in too lightly our first time or what it was, but there’s no chance we’d ever make that mistake.”

Harvard will take on Yale at 6:00 PM EST this Friday before swinging up to the Ocean State for a Saturday evening matchup against the Bears at 5:00 PM EST.

–Staff writer Mairead B. Baker can be reached at mairead.baker@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @baker_mairead.

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