Former Harvard women’s basketball head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith racked up a long list of records and accomplishments during her time in Cambridge, including becoming the winningest head coach in the history of Ivy League basketball, becoming one of four Division I coaches to spend 40 years at one institution, and winning 11 Ivy League titles.
However, Harvard’s historic upset of the No. 1 Stanford Cardinal in the 1998 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament may have been the biggest moment of Delaney-Smith’s tenure.
Until March 14, 1998, a No. 16 seed had never beaten a No. 1 seed in either the men’s or women’s postseason basketball tournament. The Cardinal entered the NCAA Tournament as the competition’s top overall seed and the top seed in the West Region, while the Crimson earned an automatic bid to the tournament as the Ivy League champion, where it was seeded 16th in the West region, and 62nd out of 64 teams.
“We didn’t feel like terrible underdogs going in,” then-senior guard Alison Seanor told The Crimson in 2018. “But I think the entire country thought we were underdogs.”
After hiring Tara VanDerveer as head coach in 1985, the Cardinal had won two national championships while reaching the Final Four five times, including in 1995-1996 and 1996-1997. After another strong season in 1997-1998, Stanford entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and the top team in the West Region, earning home-court advantage at Maples Pavillion on Stanford’s campus, where the Cardinal had won 59 consecutive games.
Despite the Cardinal’s top ranking, Stanford was facing two major injuries at the start of the postseason. Star forward Vanessa Nygaard suffered an ACL injury in the team’s final regular season game against Oregon State, while All-American Kristin Folkl, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, landed awkwardly during a late-season practice and suffered a knee injury, keeping both players out of the NCAA Tournament game.
On the Harvard side, Allison Feaster had led the nation in scoring as the Crimson had raced to a 22-4 record (12-2 in the Ivy League) and an outright Ivy League title. Harvard had made the NCAA tournament in the previous two seasons, losing in 1996 to the third-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores and in 1997 to the first-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels, each time in the first round. After a dominant season in 1997-1998, the Crimson were again ranked as a 16-seed, which provided added motivation for Harvard.
“We were very upset about where we were seeded,” then-junior guard Dr. Suzie Miller recalled in 2018. “It was a slap in the face to be seeded 16…so we came in with a bit of a chip on our shoulder.”
The first half of the game was defined by dominant runs from each side. Harvard surged to a 22-9 lead midway through the first half, but the Cardinal responded with a 25-11 run to take a one point lead with under three minutes to play in the half. The Crimson roared back with nine unanswered points to take an eight point advantage into the second half. In surging ahead, Harvard held the Cardinal to 31% shooting from the field in the first half while winning the rebounding and turnover battle.
Stanford narrowed the lead in the early stages of the second half, and the lead changed hands throughout the rest of the game, keeping the score tight until the final buzzer. Inside the final two minutes, Miller gave Harvard a 66-65 lead with a jump shot, and after a defensive stop by the Crimson, Miller hit a three pointer to extend Harvard’s lead to four points at 69-65. The Crimson held on for a 71-67 victory, the first time a No. 16 seed had defeated a No. 1 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament — and also the first time Stanford had lost in the first round of the tournament since 1982.
Leading the way for Harvard was Feaster — scoring nearly half of Harvard’s points with 35 — while also grabbing 13 rebounds.
“This was one of the best wins I’ve ever experienced. I can’t tell you how much adversity we faced just coming in here, but somehow we did it,” Feaster said after the game.
Her coach Delaney-Smith spoke with a similar sentiment at the time, sharing, “I’m really happy because no one thought we could do this but us. We prided ourselves on breaking records [this year], and this certainly tops that list.”
After a history-making defeat of the Cardinal on their own court, the Crimson tried to continue its Cinderella run in a second round game against the University of Arkansas, though it ultimately lost to the Razorbacks 82-64. To this day, no other team in collegiate women’s basketball has achieved such a victory in the NCAA Tournament.
In 1998, Delaney-Smith noted how much this particular victory meant not just to Harvard, but the entire Ivy League.
“This means more for the Ivy League than Harvard,” she said. “At some point we had to get a little respect, and as a 16 seed, I thought we didn’t get it. [The Ivy League] has had some great athletes, and our top team has always been competitive.”
In Harvard’s 2022-23 season, it made another mark in the record books by playing in the Great Eight of the NCAA’s WNIT tournament. Delaney-Smith has since retired, but with new head coach Carrie Moore at the helm, another historic NCAA tournament run has certainly been maintained within the program’s goals for the coming years.
—Staff writer Aaron B. Shuchman can be reached at email@example.com