After dropping its season-opening matchup with Boston College, Harvard women’s basketball looked to a pair of weekend contests to deliver Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith the first victory of her 40th and final season leading the Crimson program. Although Harvard lost a hard-fought road game against the University of Massachusetts on Friday, 80-71, the Crimson — playing at Lavietes Pavilion for the first time in 20 months — won in dominant fashion over Northern Illinois (NIU) on Sunday, 70-53.
HARVARD 71, MASSACHUSETTS 80
Harvard (0-2) began its Friday afternoon bout with in-state rival Massachusetts (2-0) boasting its depth and three-point shooting ability. Entering the fourth quarter, the Crimson led 57-54 and had connected on 10 of 22 three-point attempts. However, a late run by the Minutewomen and Harvard’s colder shooting from deep opened the gates for Massachusetts’s 80-71 victory. Coach Delaney-Smith returned to her four-guard starting lineup, led by sophomore guard Lola Mullaney, who finished with 14 points, five rebounds, and four three-point field goals.
In this back-and-forth scoring affair, Delaney-Smith turned to a pair of newcomers, sophomore forward Lindsey Lawson and first-year guard Elena Rodriguez, for key minutes off the bench. Junior guard Annie Stritzel provided important contributions as well, but it was the season debut of junior guard McKenzie Forbes off the bench that left a significant mark on this game. Forbes, a 2018 McDonald’s All-American recruit and transfer from California, Berkeley, finished her opening Crimson performance with 20 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists. Although she only shot six of 19 from the field, Forbes’ play-making skills and natural ability to score the ball excited Delaney-Smith.
“[Forbes’s] skill set is undeniable,” Delaney-Smith said. “She has a fabulous skill set, and she has a great court IQ. Again, she's been one of the [incoming players] that has been sidelined and has missed some practices that I think would have been very valuable to her. So to be able to come back after being sidelined and make that impact for us in the UMass game [and] in [Sunday’s game] is just a sign of the future, that she's just going to get better and better. I'm looking to have her rebound a little bit more for us and continue to play the defense that she's capable of, which is high-IQ defense.”
While losing in a road battle was not the outcome Harvard sought entering Friday night, the Crimson gained from Amherst a better sense of its rotation and identity as a team.
“We’re very deep and very talented,” Delaney-Smith said. “Unfortunately, right before we had our opening game we got hit with some injuries that sidelined a lot of [Harvard’s newcomers], and that's a little bit unfortunate because they are all newcomers, and the offensive system is new. We're still working on who we are [and] what our offensive identity is.
“We've lost a lot of valuable time together playing and just sort of connecting with each other,” Delaney-Smith continued. “They're all back now, but they haven't been in practices. So it was great to see them able to connect without a lot of practices under their belt, and I think that connection is just going to get stronger and stronger.”
HARVARD 70, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 53
Playing under the lights of Lavietes Pavilion for the first time since Feb. 29, 2020, the Crimson (1-2) turned in a thoroughly impressive performance against the Northern Illinois Huskies (1-1) to prevail, 70-53.
The story of the first half was Harvard’s defensive length stalling the Huskies’ offense, which led to inefficient shooting (Northern Illinois shot six of 29 before halftime), turnovers, and fastbreak opportunities for the Crimson offense.
“We weren't mistake-free [on the defensive end], which we never will be,” Delaney-Smith said. “But I do think that my team stuck to the defensive scout for the most part, with a couple of breakdowns in the fourth quarter. [Our] length bothered their point guard. [...] Starting with [first-year guard] Harmoni Turner, everybody who switched on to her did a great job. I'm pretty pleased with our defensive effort.”
After her promising start to the season on Friday, junior guard McKenzie Forbes made her first start in a Crimson uniform in Sunday’s contest. Coach Delaney-Smith paired Forbes alongside four other guards — Turner, sophomore Lola Mullaney, junior Maggie McCarthy, and senior captain Tess Sussman — to form an athletic, fast-paced starting lineup. After Harvard raced out to a 13-point halftime lead, Forbes recorded nine straight points to begin the second half and keep the Crimson scoring advantage in the double digits.
“I think [the lineup of Forbes, Turner, Mullaney, McCarthy, and Sussman] all can shoot the three, and many of them can attack on all three levels. That number 25 for Northern Illinois [A’Jah Davis] is generally much more of an inside presence. I think that we just played the defense I wanted and maybe took [Davis] back on her heels a little bit early and got her in foul trouble. That really helped us. There's not a true five player [in this lineup], and we're very undersized, but I love our teamwork, and I love that we're handling, for the most part, the bigs in the paint. So it's a work in progress for us to be honest with you.”
In addition to Forbes’ strong play, the Harvard offense was led by McCarthy’s highly efficient 16-point performance on 75 percent field goal shooting, including four of her five three-point attempts. The Massachusetts native provides a steadying presence and leadership to an inexperienced Crimson squad, as she saw important minutes in her 2018-2019 freshman campaign before emerging as a starter on the 2019-2020 Harvard team.
“[McCarthy is] our rock. She's our foundation. She has a calmness to her and a leadership [ability] on the court that really helps us connect all of our new and young players. The problem with that is we don't get her into scoring positions as much as we want. So I think that the intention to get her to score a little bit more is something we're trying to do. It was great to see her finally get more shots that I want her to get.”
McCarthy, Forbes, and the Crimson will return to the hardwood this Friday at 7 p.m. as they travel to Piscataway, N.J., to face Big Ten power Rutgers (3-1).
— Staff writer A.J. Dilts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.