March 11, 2023
How Harvard notched the Ivy League Tournament’s first-ever upset — and Princeton thwarted one
‘Don’t wait until the last minute to fight for our lives’
PRINCETON, N.J. – Columbia women’s basketball still had one small chance, down five points and inbounding the ball with six seconds left in overtime on Friday night. After the best regular season in program history, its NCAA Tournament hopes were likely hanging in the balance of this Ivy League Tournament semifinal against Harvard, and it needed its high-powered offense to kick into high gear.
Instead, there was a layup, and there was the buzzer, and there was euphoria.
Harvard senior guard McKenzie Forbes stole the inbounds pass and broke away for an exclamation-point layup. Her teammates made a beeline for her as the buzzer sounded on third-seeded Harvard’s 72-65 win over second-seeded Columbia. The celebration paused only for the handshake line, and then the Crimson hugged, screamed and took selfies with the fans packed in the stands behind their bench as the song “Believe” by Cher blasted through the speakers.
It was a fitting song for a Crimson team that had adopted the motto “Believe It” practically from first-year head coach Carrie Moore’s first day on the job. The Crimson believed through a Thanksgiving trip to the Cancun Challenge in Mexico, in which they lost to Power 5 programs on three straight days. They believed despite a spate of injuries that left them with seven healthy players — the Ivy League minimum — for a game at Dartmouth on Jan. 16. And they kept believing after losing heartbreakers to eventual conference co-champions Princeton and Columbia in mid-February.
By the time the Ivy League Tournament rolled around, Harvard had a 9-5 conference record and was perhaps the most dangerous third seed that the tournament has had since its inception in 2017.* “I don’t think the league has seen the best of us yet,” senior guard Maggie McCarthy told reporters on Thursday.
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Harvard delivered on that and then some, toppling a Columbia team that had gotten at-large consideration for the NCAA Tournament and beaten Miami, UMass, Princeton and Seton Hall. In doing so, Harvard got the program’s first-ever win in the Ivy League Tournament and recorded the first-ever upset in women’s Ivy Tournament play.
“I’m really proud,” Harvard legend Allison Feaster, who led the No. 16 seed Crimson to an immortal upset of No. 1 Stanford in the 1998 NCAA Tournament and was sitting courtside on Friday, told The Next postgame. “I think to come in as an underdog and get the win? Typical Harvard style.”
Friday’s game was gritty, physical and intense, as if both teams were trying to outwill each other to advance to the final. Harvard got 32 points in the paint to Columbia’s 30, and they each had 16 second-chance points off of double-digit offensive rebounds. Fittingly, the first half ended on a missed layup that produced a scramble for the loose ball, players flying everywhere, desperate to secure another possession.
Overall, Harvard outrebounded Columbia 48-39, including a 25-15 advantage in the first half. Midway through the half, Columbia senior Hannah Pratt screamed at her teammates, “Box out,” slapping her hands together on each word for emphasis and urgency.
“That was the game, in my opinion,” Columbia head coach Megan Griffith said of the first-half rebounding. “… There was a lot of momentum and confidence that [Harvard] built from that.”
Harvard trailed by as many as eight early but used a 10-0 run in the second quarter to take a five-point lead at halftime. The second half resembled a tug-of-war as much as a basketball game, with Harvard responding to every surge Columbia tried to make.
For instance, Columbia tied the game late in the third quarter on a 5-0 run by senior guard Jaida Patrick, who hit a 3-pointer and then a driving reverse layup. But Forbes responded with a driving layup, Harvard freshman Saniyah Glenn-Bello added a pull-up jumper, and Harvard sophomore point guard Harmoni Turner hit a jump shot to push the lead to six in barely more than a minute.
Forbes had several answers for Columbia shots, finishing with 27 points on 10-for-21 shooting along with six rebounds, three steals and two blocks. “She single-handedly willed us to that win,” Moore said postgame.
Columbia’s Kaitlyn Davis matched Forbes with a career-high 27 points, also on 10-for-21 shooting, plus five rebounds and two assists. But Griffith said that her team showed some mental fatigue late in the game, including after the Lions had clawed back to tie it for the fourth time at 58-all. With 23 seconds left, Davis committed an offensive foul, giving Harvard a chance to tie.
Harvard failed to get a shot off, sending the game to overtime, and the Harvard players pulled together. Someone — Forbes thinks it was McCarthy — told the group, “Don’t wait until the last minute to fight for our lives.”
McCarthy sure didn’t wait, finishing with a game-high plus-minus of plus-16 despite scoring just five points. She was the first player Feaster named while describing the team’s “very gutsy performance,” and she made so many scrappy plays that a reporter jokingly asked postgame whether she had good health insurance.
“I got my knee pads. I think I need elbow pads,” McCarthy replied.
“That’s why they’re our captains,” Moore said of McCarthy and Forbes. “… They lead by example, and they lead with their voice, and they lead with their toughness.”
In overtime, Columbia made more mistakes, and Harvard capitalized. The Lions shot 1-for-4 from the free-throw line and turned the ball over on a five-second call with 13 seconds left, despite having two timeouts. Then came the final play, which started with Columbia inbounding the ball on the sideline with six seconds left. Forbes was “trying to go nuts on the ball,” she told reporters postgame, looking for a deflection or a five-second call. She got the steal and had space ahead of her — and time to think as she raced toward the basket.
“It [felt] really slow,” she said, laughing. “I remember I got it. I’m like, ‘Okay, should I hold it?’ I’m like, ‘I gotta get out of here.’ … It felt like I had 30 seconds. I was probably moving a lot slower than I thought I was in my head. But yeah, I just kind of had an awareness that I could probably get [a shot] up and that we weren’t up by too much, so I thought it made sense.”
After the buzzer sounded, “we were just extremely proud of ourselves, extremely proud of all of our preparation,” McCarthy said. “We trusted it the whole time, all the way through overtime until the last second. And I think that’s why we got so excited. We were just proud of how far we’ve come, and we finally showed it on a big stage.”
Friday’s other semifinal also featured a gritty performance by an underdog, but fourth-seeded Penn couldn’t quite climb out of an early hole against top-seeded Princeton and fell 60-47. The Tigers scored the game’s first 16 points, with 10 coming from junior guard and Ivy League Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen, and the first quarter ended 19-2. The Quakers bench often stood in anticipation of a shot falling, only to sit without fanfare.
As the second quarter wore on, signs of frustration showed. Senior Sydnei Caldwell sighed as she sat down in front of the scorer’s table, waiting to enter the game. Associate head coach Kelly Killion smacked a rolled-up piece of paper in frustration before walking over to a few bench players, gesturing emphatically as she spoke.
“Don’t even look up at the score,” Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin told his team. “Let’s play better, and then we’ll worry about the score.”
In the final minute of the second quarter, Penn forced a shot clock violation and a travel on consecutive Princeton possessions, which brought its bench to life. Senior guard Mandy McGurk capped the half with a halfcourt buzzer-beater, cutting Princeton’s lead to 11 and giving Penn all the momentum. McGurk whirled around as the shot fell, looking for her teammates as they streamed off the bench toward her to celebrate.
Penn started the third quarter with a steal and basket, and soon it was Princeton’s turn to be frustrated as the Quakers trimmed the lead to six. Seated on the bench, Penn freshman guard Saniah Caldwell — Sydnei’s sister — bounced her fists against her knees in excitement at what was happening in her first Ivy Tournament.
However, Princeton did what Columbia couldn’t, putting the game away with a 10-2 run to open the fourth quarter. During that run, senior guard Julia Cunningham got an assist, a steal on the perimeter, and another assist on the resulting fast break. Princeton then forced Penn into a shot clock violation, which prompted a media timeout. Princeton head coach Carla Berube was animated, high-fiving most of the players but stretching to swat Cunningham’s shoulder in acknowledgment as Cunningham ran into the huddle.
“They kind of just look at each other and they’re like, ‘Okay, that’s it … It’s time to get stops,’” Berube said postgame about her players. “… They know what they need to do.”
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With the win, Princeton kept its streak alive of reaching every tournament final under the current format, and it will have a chance to win its fourth straight tournament title on Saturday. Over the past four tournaments, Princeton has won by fewer than 10 points only once — last year’s semifinal against Harvard — and often made dominance look easy. (In the regular season, too, Princeton had a 42-game conference winning streak from 2019 to 2022 and hasn’t finished with more than two regular-season conference losses since 2016-17.)
But, as Columbia’s result in Friday’s second semifinal showed, winning consistently is incredibly challenging, especially in an Ivy League that is continuing to improve. Columbia had rewritten all sorts of program history in the regular season, including with its overall record of 23-4 and its first-ever Ivy League championship. The goal all season long has been the NCAA Tournament, and for much of the season, Columbia had played like a tournament team. But Columbia looked shaky in its title-clinching win against seventh-place Cornell on March 4, and after another unconvincing outing on Friday, Griffith said that her players were “doing a lot of internal thinking” to try to salvage their season.
The loss dropped the Lions to 46 in the NET rankings, seven spots behind Princeton and 33 ahead of Harvard. They have 13 road wins, tied for the most in the country, and seven wins over NET top-100 teams, but that might not be enough: According to ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme, the loss moved Columbia from safely in the NCAA Tournament to the first team out.
“With every fiber in my being, I believe we’re an NCAA Tournament team still,” Griffith said unprompted postgame. “… This one game cannot define our season.”
Princeton, which improved to 22-5 overall, is now projected as the automatic qualifier from the Ivy League and a No. 11 seed, just as the Tigers were a season ago when they knocked off No. 6 seed Kentucky. Penn, at 17-11, is looking for a potential WNIT berth, meaning that half of the conference could play in the top two national postseason tournaments.
And the Harvard Crimson, after beating Columbia? They’re looking to make the NCAA Tournament, too, for the seventh time in program history but the first since 2007. They have the belief; now, they just need one more upset.
*Ivy League women’s basketball also had a postseason tournament from the inaugural season in 1974-75 through 1981-82, using a different format.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided and Power Plays.
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