March 30, 2023
How Columbia got revenge on Harvard — and stoked a rivalry — in a historic WNIT game
'That was pure Columbia basketball'
NEW YORK – After Columbia beat Harvard 77-71 in the WNIT quarterfinals on Sunday and its jubilant fans streamed toward the Levien Gymnasium exits, a few students lingered in the stands. They held one of several giant cardboard cutouts of Lions players’ faces that had dotted the stands during the game and posed for photos with it.
That particular cutout was of sophomore point guard Kitty Henderson, who had 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting, nine rebounds, and five assists with zero turnovers in 33 minutes. That tied her season highs in both points and rebounds, and it came at a crucial time, as Columbia and Harvard were battling for the right to extend their seasons.
The game was the first-ever meeting of Ivy League women’s basketball teams in a national postseason tournament. For Harvard, it was the first WNIT quarterfinal appearance in program history, and with the win, Columbia became the first Ivy women’s team to make the WNIT semifinals. (Three days later, Columbia would beat Bowling Green to advance to the championship game on April 1.)
In time, the Lions will likely appreciate the history they made on Sunday more, but the more immediate satisfaction came from completing the final — and arguably most important — stop on their “Revenge Tour.” In the regular season, Columbia had avenged losses to teams including Seton Hall, Stony Brook, UMass, Princeton and Penn en route to a 23-4 record and an Ivy League championship. But in the Ivy League Tournament, third-seeded Harvard upset the second-seeded Lions, and the NCAA Tournament selection committee controversially used that result to justify leaving the Lions out of the field.
“I’m really looking forward to that matchup,” Griffith told reporters on March 24, after Columbia beat Syracuse in the Round of 16 to set up a rematch with Harvard. “I mean, I’ve been hoping this would happen since the WNIT tournament started.”
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The Lions got that rematch because both teams have hit their stride over the past few weeks. After finishing the regular season with a record of 16-10 overall and 9-5 in conference, Harvard had a stellar Ivy League Tournament, leading top-seeded Princeton for most of the championship game before losing by six points. Harvard then beat Towson, UMass and Rhode Island in the WNIT — the former by 40 points — to stake its claim as one of the hottest teams in the country entering Sunday.
Harvard head coach Carrie Moore told The Next before Sunday’s game that her team was finally healthy after an injury-plagued regular season and credited senior guards Maggie McCarthy and McKenzie Forbes for elevating their games in March. It took the Crimson a full week to get over the loss to Princeton — in fact, Moore had to call a timeout early in their first-round WNIT game because “we were still feeling it even in that moment” — but once they did, they embraced the opportunity to keep playing.
Meanwhile, the Lions used the WNIT to rediscover themselves after two uncharacteristic games entering the tournament. They had needed overtime on March 4 to beat Cornell, the Ivy League’s seventh-place team, and clinch a share of the regular-season title, and they were tentative at times in the conference tournament loss to Harvard.
“I think we wanted it too much heading into the Ivy League Tournament,” Griffith said after the Syracuse game. “… At this point, they’re just playing for each other again, and this is the team that you’ve seen [for] 95% of our season.”
The joy and confidence was evident at Columbia’s shootaround on Sunday morning, and that carried over to tip-off. Columbia scored on the first possession, missing its first shot but getting the offensive rebound and a layup from senior wing Jaida Patrick. Associate head coach Tyler Cordell reacted by rising to her feet and pounding her hand against her clipboard in approval.
The Lions led by as many as seven in the first quarter and nine in the second quarter, and if not for several missed layups, they could have stretched the lead further. A crowd of nearly 1,700 felt twice as large, cheering from the opening tip, and one fan brought a “Revenge Tour” sign with the words written in Harvard’s colors of crimson and black.
At halftime, Columbia led by just four points, but neither Henderson nor senior forward Kaitlyn Davis had made their mark yet, shooting a combined 2-for-13 for seven points. One encouraging sign for the Lions was that Henderson, a 27.2% 3-point shooter this season, had hit a three in the second quarter after working solely on that shot after shootaround.
Griffith said postgame that Davis was “a little like not herself … a little bit lower energy” in the first half, but at halftime, she was able to refocus.
“When Kaitlyn’s free and confident and not thinking about too many things, that’s when she’s at her best,” Griffith said, “and that’s when you just got to get her in that headspace.”
In the third quarter, both Davis and Henderson came on strong, helping Columbia produce its highest point total in a quarter this season with 34. Davis and Henderson combined for half of those points, shot 70% from the field, and had six of the team’s nine assists in the quarter. But true to form for a team that has five players averaging nine-plus points per game, four other players scored, too.
“That was pure Columbia basketball,” Henderson told reporters postgame. “We just got out and ran. We played good defense, and we made stops go to scores. … That third quarter was literally just us having fun and also finishing plays.”
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By the end of the third quarter, Columbia led by 18, and it pushed the lead to 20 on the first possession of the fourth quarter. The crowd was so loud during the run that Griffith had to stomp her foot and shout to get a bench player’s attention to go check in.
Harvard, though, started to press, forcing three turnovers and sparking a 23-5 run that cut Columbia’s lead to two with 3:27 remaining. “It’s fun to play that way,” Moore told reporters postgame. “And in those moments, that’s when we’re really good, when we’re getting stops and we’re scoring in transition and we’re hitting threes. And it just took us forever to really get to that point in this game for whatever reason.”
“They just needed to get my blood pressure up,” Griffith said of her team. “High blood pressure and gray hairs.”
But less than 30 seconds after Harvard had made it a one-possession game, Henderson helped swing the momentum back toward Columbia. She got a defensive rebound and passed it to Patrick, who brought the ball up with Forbes guarding her. McCarthy closed in from behind, sensing an opportunity to poke the ball loose. At the last moment, though, Patrick crossed over to shed both McCarthy and Forbes and found Henderson, who converted a crucial layup.
“I never thought, being a junior [last season], having a freshman lead the team the way [Henderson] does, and now that she’s a sophomore, it’s been amazing to see her growth,” Davis told reporters postgame. “And I would really say that Kitty’s the heart of the team. You see the moments where she’s diving on the floor, getting tough buckets … Kitty’s just been our leader through and through this whole year, and she’s really stepping up in this postseason. So you’re not gonna see a lot of guards like her.”
From there, Davis helped close out the game with three points, two rebounds, a steal and a block in the final 2:24. She finished with a team-high 17 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks, continuing her streak of clutch performances after making the game-winning basket against Fordham and hitting a pivotal shot against Syracuse with under 30 seconds left.
“She’s the best player I’ve ever played with, 100%,” Henderson said. “She literally does everything on the floor: She’s dribbling it up. She’s taking my point guard spot sometimes. She gets all the rebounds. You’ve seen how athletic she is. It’s ridiculous. She hits big-time shots; she’s clutch as hell … Playing with KD is just really fun.”
The game was the third straight nailbiter between Columbia and Harvard: Columbia won by five points in February and by six on Sunday, and Harvard won by seven in overtime in the Ivy League Tournament. Back in January, though, in the teams’ first meeting this season, Harvard had lost by 26 at Levien Gymnasium.
“[Today I saw] a team that really believes in what this program can do,” Moore said. “And I don’t necessarily know if we really believed it during that last time we were here. And I think, after the month that we’ve had, after all that we’ve been through this season, I think we are finishing on a really high note.”
Sunday’s game was chippy at times, and the officials allowed both teams to be physical. Several times, players looked incredulously at the nearest official after getting hit in the face and not hearing a whistle. Neither team would give an inch, as Forbes and Columbia guard Abbey Hsu showed in the second quarter when they bumped shoulders walking past each other rather than diverting their paths. Harvard was determined to equalize the season series and get “redemption” for its poor showing at Levien Gymnasium in January, Moore said pregame. And Columbia was determined to avenge the loss that knocked it out of the NCAA Tournament.
“I think I can speak for all of the team that this one felt really good,” Henderson said postgame. “We’ve been looking at this ever since we lost because we saw the matchups coming.”
“I felt like it was the basketball gods saying this was meant to happen,” Griffith said about getting the rematch. “So we’ll take that revenge.”
Going forward, this could be a full-fledged rivalry, with Columbia the growing power in the Ivy League and Harvard the traditional power looking to reclaim the throne under Moore, its first-year head coach. Harvard had won 62 of the first 65 meetings all-time between the programs, but Columbia is 8-2 over the past 10 matchups.
The similarities between the programs should only add fuel to the rivalry. Both Griffith and Moore previously coached at Princeton — the conference’s top dog as of late — and they have known each other for years. Their teams are the Ivy League’s top two offenses, are stacked with 3-point shooters, and look to play up-tempo.
“We’re both fighting for championships,” Moore said, agreeing that a rivalry is imminent. “I think it starts at the top; it starts with your leadership. And Meg and I … [are] two of the biggest competitors you’ll ever meet. And so I think our teams both feed off of that type of energy, which turns into and equates to really good games …
“They’re the co-champs, right? So, in order to be the best, you got to beat the best, and that’s the goal for years to come.”
Both programs believe that national prominence and NCAA Tournament berths are within reach. And especially in a conference that is rarely spotlighted nationally and too often a one-bid league, those beliefs put them on a collision course.
Those goals collided four times this season, an unusually high number. On Sunday, Columbia delivered the ultimate revenge, ending Harvard’s season and WNIT title hopes.
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, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.