Capping off an impressive weekend at home against the Ivy League’s top two teams, Harvard women’s basketball used an electric third quarter to dominate Princeton, the top team in the Ancient Eight, to punch its ticket to the Ivy League Tournament in March.
The Crimson (16-9, 8-4 Ivy) won its last home game of the year over the Tigers (20-5, 10-2) to finish a perfect 12-0 in the newly-renovated Lavietes Pavilion.
“To be in our new gym and be undefeated in our first year is just really great,” coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said. “We should thank all the donors, that’s how much we love being here.”
Harvard took real control of the driver’s seat in the third quarter. The two squads opened up the second half trading baskets before sophomore guard Katie Benzan knocked down a three off the dribble to extend the Crimson’s lead to 30-24. A few possessions later, Benzan nailed an almost identical triple.
A day after shooting one-for-nine against Penn, Benzan recovered by posting 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting. The sophomore added five rebounds in the effort.
Harvard followed up Benzan’s flurry of threes with a basket from sophomore forward Jeannie Boehm and then a transition three-pointer from junior co-captain Madeline Raster to extend the lead to 40-28, forcing a Princeton timeout. The Tigers tried to muscle the ball down low, but 5’6” guard Benzan was able to record a block and come down with a rebound over the Princeton bigs to give the Crimson possession.
Although Boehm would run into foul trouble later in quarter, freshman Jadyn Bush stepped up to record offensive rebounds on two straight possessions. Bush knocked down three free throws and a layup late in the quarter to help extend Harvard’s lead to 47-32. With under a minute to go in the third quarter, junior guard Sydney Skinner hit a three-pointer to extend the Crimson’s lead. Two late free throws from Raster made the score 52-36 entering the final period.
At the beginning of the night, however, the Tigers struck first. Starting off the game with a bang, Princeton secured the tip and netted a layup in the first three seconds of the game. Harvard was able to get on the board following a switch between Benzan and Boehm in which Boehm took advantage of the mismatch against a Tiger guard down low.
The Crimson took its first lead of the day on a three-pointer from senior guard Kirby Porter from the right wing, but Princeton quickly answered. Raster knocked down a three in the same spot, but yet again the Tigers answered with a three of its own. Harvard continued the tug-of-war first quarter after Benzan hit yet another three-pointer from the same exact spot, giving the Crimson the lead 13-11. Princeton, however, hit a triple of its own and again took the lead.
Following a Boehm layup, the Tigers hit two free throws, giving Harvard the final shot of the quarter. Skinner connected on a floater in the lane just before the buzzer to put the Crimson ahead at the first break, 17-16.
Skinner, coming off the bench, was one of the focal points of Delaney-Smith’s offense on Saturday. The junior guard poured in 16 points and tallied five assists in 27 minutes of action.
Princeton started the second quarter with a spark, knocking down two straight three-pointers to make the score 22-17. From there, the second period offense would disappear. Harvard finally got on the board in the markedly defensive quarter on a layup from senior guard Taylor Rooks with 5:47 left to play in the half. On the next trip down the court, another Rooks layup pulled the Crimson within one point.
The defensive struggle continued until a pair of Rooks free throws gave Harvard the lead with less than two minutes until halftime. After Bush tipped a pass two possessions later, junior guard Nani Redford finished on a wide open breakaway layup to give Harvard the lead, 25-22, at the break.
“I felt our defense fed our offense,” Delaney-Smith said. “This has never happened, and that’s who we wish we would be.”
The Tigers scored only six second-quarter points to the Crimson’s eight in the defensive period.
“This was the greatest defensive weekend I can remember in this gym,” Delaney-Smith said. “We got historically ten of our three [straight] stops in a ballgame, our goal is to get six in a ballgame, and we had five in the first half.”
Harvard’s defense especially clamped down on Princeton’s starters. No Tiger in the starting five accumulated more than six points, and the starters scored just 26 points collectively.
Offenses came alive quickly in the final quarter. Layups from Skinner and Bush matched two buckets from Princeton. A triple from the Tigers would pull Princeton within 13 points, but Skinner would match with a three of her own to make the score 59-43.
Following a controversial travel call on Bush, Rooks knocked down a three-pointer from the top of the key to extend the Crimson’s lead even further. Princeton answered with a triple of its own, but Benzan quickly converted on a layup on the other end.
With just under four minutes to go in the contest, Benzan swiped the ball away in the Tigers’ backcourt and found Skinner, assisting on the latter’s three-pointer to put Harvard up 67-48.
“We played such good defense and we let that influence how we played on offense,” Raster said. “We brought a ton of energy on defense and got a ton of stops and that flowed into the offensive end, so even when we weren’t shooting well we were still able to play strong defense. That’s something we’ve struggled with this season so it was good to figure that out and play so tough on defense.”
The Crimson cruised for the final few minutes, dribbling out the clock to secure a 72-58 victory, clinching its sport in Philadelphia for the Ivy League tournament.
“We’re just excited to keep playing, anytime you can extend your season it’s so awesome,” Raster said. “We feel like we have a lot of momentum going into next weekend and then the tournament, so I think we’re really excited to show up and play hard like we did this weekend.”
—Staff writer Joseph W. Minatel can be reached at email@example.com.