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Harvard Women’s Basketball Falls to Ivy League Rivals Columbia and Cornell in Difficult Road Trip

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As Harvard women’s basketball (12-12, 6-6) continued down the home stretch of its regular season this past weekend, a pair of road matchups with the Columbia Lions (19-4, 10-1) and Cornell Big Red (9-13, 4-7) presented key opportunities for the Crimson to solidify its spot in the Ivy League women’s basketball tournament in March. On Friday night, Harvard traded baskets in a competitive, high-scoring affair with Columbia before losing, 74-70. The Crimson was then unable to repeat its 42-point victory over Cornell on January 22, falling to the Big Red on Saturday night, 52-49.

HARVARD 70, COLUMBIA 74

The Crimson took the floor Friday night without two of its starting players, junior guard McKenzie Forbes and senior guard Tess Sussman. The combination of missing Sussman’s leadership and versatility on both ends of the floor and Forbes’ scoring prowess–which was on full display in her 30-point outburst in last Saturday’s game against Penn–posed a stiff challenge to a young Harvard team facing Ivy League second-place Columbia.

Not having Forbes and Sussman, however, provided opportunities for Harvard junior guard Annie Stritzel, first-year guard Elena Rodriguez, and others to step into increased roles against the Lions. Typically Coach Kathy Delaney-Smith’s first substitute off the bench this season, Stritzel delivered a strong performance Friday night as a starter, shooting six-of-ten from the field for 17 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. Rodriguez, who has shown flashes of stellar play in her first college season, logged 27 minutes as a starter and finished with seven points and four rebounds. Fellow first-year guard Elle Stauffer also recorded a career-high in minutes (20) and tied her career-high in points (9) for the Crimson.

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“[Rodriguez, Stritzel, and Stauffer] primarily did [step-up], and I thought they did a great job last night,” said Delaney-Smith. “We just fell short at the end. I would say we're in a position to win last night despite missing two starters, and I was pretty proud of how everyone stepped up last night and I really liked our defensive effort. We missed some key rebounds at the end of the game that took us out of his ability to be able to win. But again, proud of how we stepped up.”

Harvard’s star first-year guard Harmoni Turner picked right back up from her 23-point showing last weekend with the Crimson’s first bucket of the game on Friday. After trading baskets through the first eight minutes, Rodriguez finished an and-one layup to trigger an eight-to-two run that earned Harvard a 19-18 lead entering the second quarter.

The Crimson finished the game with 14 steals, and this defensive intensity was on full display before halftime. Three consecutive Columbia possessions ended in turnovers for Harvard with two minutes remaining in the half, including two steals from Stritzel that she turned into transition scores. After Columbia’s sophomore guard Abbey Hsu knocked down a three-pointer at the buzzer to put the Lions up 35-31 at halftime, a seven-to-nothing Crimson run at the start of the third quarter narrowed its deficit to one, 41-40. Delaney-Smith described the message to her team at halftime that helped produce the scoring burst.

“I think [our halftime messages] are usually very similar. [...] We just try to tweak what offenses we're running and pay attention to who's hot from the other team and talk a little bit about our rebounding efforts, because we're so undersized against everyone. Columbia had two pretty athletic, tall players that played the forward spots in both the four and the five. I think [one player was] 6’1”, but they do play taller than that because they're extremely athletic and big. We're stretched because we're undersized.”

Turner, who led Harvard with 20 points on the night, unleashed her ability as a facilitator throughout the third quarter with a pair of assists to Stritzel and Rodriguez, and her floater with two minutes left in the period tied the score at 50.

The Crimson kept up defensive intensity in the game’s final stretch, but poor shooting (6-of-22 from the field and one-for-five from the three-point line) allowed Columbia to slowly stretch its lead to 68-59 with three minutes left to play. The Lions would hold onto their lead, winning 74-70 and solidifying their second-place position in the Ivy League conference standings.

HARVARD 49, CORNELL 52

After a four-hour bus ride that got into Ithaca at 3:00 a.m. on Saturday, Harvard took the floor against Cornell for their second game of the back-to-back. The game appeared to be a good opportunity for the Crimson to rediscover their winning ways; when the two teams met last month in Cambridge, Harvard came away with a 42-point victory.

But this time around, as the seconds ran out in the third quarter, Cornell found itself up two and with the ball under their own basket. Handed the ball for the inbounds play, Big Red guard Shannon Mulroy noticed Harvard’s Lindsay Lawson with her back to the basket. Mulroy quickly passed the ball off Lawson’s legs, collected the ricochet, and went up for a layup. After getting fouled on the shot, Mulroy buried two free throws to put her team up 38-34 heading into the final ten minutes.

The play seemed to be a microcosm of the night. Cornell met a shorthanded and weary Crimson team and caught them off guard, sending Harvard home from their road trip with a bitter loss. After the game, Harvard’s bewilderment was evident. “I don’t know what happened tonight,” said Coach Delaney-Smith. “We looked like we were a second behind in everything we did, and honestly, we didn't deserve to win.”

Just one day removed from losing to a two-win Dartmouth team, Cornell was aggressive from the start of the contest, keeping Harvard off-balance on both ends of the floor and outrebounding the Crimson 16-7 in the first quarter. While the last matchup between the two teams saw Harvard score the game’s first 22 points, this time around, the Big Red led 14-10 after ten minutes.

The Crimson shut down the Big Red in the second quarter, holding the hosts to four points. But the shorthanded visitors failed to capitalize, shooting just 5-16 from the floor to go into the break up by four. After halftime, Harvard quickly reached their biggest lead of the night at 28-21. After that point, however, Delaney-Smith’s team shot 2-14 from the field over the next seven minutes and watched their lead dwindle and disappear.

In the fourth quarter, Harvard tried to find the late run that has saved them numerous times this season. But Cornell managed to keep the visitors just out of reach, always staying one or two possessions ahead of the Crimson. With under two minutes left in the game, Harvard showed some life. Guard Lola Mullaney knocked down a deep three to make the score 48-50. The Crimson then executed a full court press to perfection, resulting in a Turner steal. But over the next minute and a half, Harvard was unable to convert multiple chances. After Turner had her last-second desperation heave blocked, Cornell rushed to center court to celebrate knocking off the Crimson for only the 14th time in the two teams’ 86-game history.

It was a game where Harvard’s lack of leadership and steady play in the form of Forbes and Sussman was glaring. Only four players scored a point for the Crimson, and the offense struggled to find a rhythm all game. Delaney-Smith noted that without Forbes, Cornell was able to pressure Harvard’s other primary shot creators into more difficult shots. “Our shooting percentages were down, though, for both Lola [Mullaney] and Harmoni [Turner],” Delaney-Smith said. “Defenses can zone in on them, so you look for some other people to put the ball in the basket. And no one's consistently showing that kind of confidence right now, unfortunately.”

After a five-game winning streak, the Crimson are now in the midst of a three-game skid as they look to lock up an Ivy League tournament spot in the season’s last two games. In each of the last three contests, Harvard had chances to win. But instead of sitting at 9-3 in league play, comfortably ahead of Yale in the standings, the Crimson are 6-6, with a shrinking path to the third seed. They now sit just half a game ahead of Penn, but they still control their own destiny, and have a chance to right the ship by giving Princeton their first Ivy League loss next Saturday at Lavietes Pavilion.

—Staff writer A.J. Dilts can be reached at aj.dilts@thecrimson.com.

— Staff writer Nicholas Daley can be reached at nicholas.daley@thecrimson.com.

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