March 12, 2022 

Big threes, air guitars and a proper sendoff: Inside the Ivy League Tournament semifinals

Princeton and Columbia advanced, but Harvard showed ‘what Ivy basketball is all about’

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – When Harvard head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith emerged from what could be the final postgame handshake line of her storied career, she wasn’t alone. Junior guard McKenzie Forbes draped an arm around her shoulder and walked side-by-side with the retiring coach to midcourt. The team huddled there for only a moment, then walked to its locker room.

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Just like that, Delaney-Smith was gone, after a hard-fought 72-67 loss by the fourth-seeded Crimson to the top-seeded Princeton Tigers in the Ivy League Tournament semifinals on Friday. The Crimson had squeaked into the tournament on a tiebreaker after finishing 7-7 in league play and had lost two regular-season games to Princeton by an average of 19 points. But, playing on their home court, the underdogs shot 40.9% from 3-point range and gave Princeton its closest Ivy League game all season.

“It was a great Ivy Madness game,” Princeton head coach Carla Berube said postgame, referring to the tournament’s nickname. “… It took every ounce of everything we had to pull that out. And so we give Harvard a lot of credit, and we certainly knew that it was going to be tough, but we persevered and got the stops down the stretch.”

“[Princeton] had to battle for every minute of that game,” said Columbia head coach Megan Griffith, whose second-seeded Lions beat the third-seeded Yale Bulldogs 67-38 in the second semifinal. “… [Playing] Harvard at home is hard. They’re always hard. It’s a really tough team, from all the years that I’ve been in the league.”

Princeton entered Friday on a 40-game conference winning streak, but Harvard led by as many as seven points late in the second quarter before Princeton reeled off 10-0 and 17-7 runs to bookend halftime and open up a 13-point lead. Harvard cut it to one on its ninth 3-pointer of the game with 34 seconds remaining but didn’t score again. “We were just one short,” Delaney-Smith said postgame.

Delaney-Smith is retiring this spring after 40 years at Harvard, and she was honored before Friday’s game, just as she has been on the road all season and at Harvard’s “KDS Day” celebration in February. Ivy League executive director Robin Harris presented Delaney-Smith with a bouquet of flowers at center court, and they posed for photos as the crowd gave Delaney-Smith a standing ovation.

Delaney-Smith then walked back to her bench and handed the bouquet to a staff member, and guard Lola Mullaney wrapped her arm around her. She shook her head vigorously at her players, imploring them to focus on the game.

“I really don’t want them to think about [me],” she said. “I wanted them to play for the team, themselves. I mean, I can’t tell them not to play for me, but I was emotional, quite honestly. And I wanted them to not see my emotion and I wanted them to lock in and focus on the game. And they did. They did.”

The emotions ran high all night, amped up by a crowd that was evenly split between the two teams. Delaney-Smith emerged from the locker room about 10 minutes before tipoff and hugged Berube and the Princeton assistant coaches; the two head coaches also shared a long embrace postgame. Delaney-Smith let out a giant fist pump early in the fourth quarter when Forbes hit a shot and was fouled, and Princeton sophomore Kaitlyn Chen did the same minutes later when she drove to the basket, hit a tough jumper, and got fouled.

Even Yale head coach Allison Guth got choked up after the second semifinal when she discussed the end of Delaney-Smith’s career. “She’s an absolute mentor and legend to me,” Guth told reporters.

Yet Delaney-Smith was the calm in the storm when she addressed the media soon after what was perhaps her final walk to the locker room. (Harvard has applied for a waiver to be considered for the WNIT despite its losing record, which would ordinarily be disqualifying.) Her emotions about her retirement weren’t the dominant theme of her press conference—instead, she was brimming with pride at the game she had just witnessed.

Harvard head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith (center) and guard McKenzie Forbes (right) address the media after their loss in the Ivy League Tournament semifinals on March 11, 2022. (Photo credit: Jenn Hatfield)

“Very, very, very, very proud of my team. Couldn’t have asked more of them,” she said in her opening statement. “They left it on the floor. I mean, I wanted them to win for them. They wanted to do it for me. That makes the whole package very emotional, and I don’t have any regrets. I can’t be more proud of this group of athletes. Played their hearts out … We had a lot of bumps along the way, and we still came here and came close to beating [Princeton].”

The crowd was in it all night, packing the stands behind the teams’ benches ahead of the first semifinal and staying for the entire second game despite the blowout score. Each team brought cheerleaders, and some brought their bands and mascots, making the 1,636-seat Lavietes Pavilion feel even cozier.

Wearing all manner of orange and black attire, from striped polos to pompom hats, Princeton fans pleaded with the officials—first to call fouls and then, quickly, not to call fouls. A front-row Harvard fan stood and imitated guard Harmoni Turner’s feints on the court as she attacked the defense in the fourth quarter. The crowd even rose to its feet to cheer on both teams coming out of a timeout with 6:45 left—even though the first play after the timeout ended up being a free throw.

“This is March basketball. You couldn’t dream it up better,” Forbes said. “Yeah, I had fun out there. I think, honestly, [it] sucks to lose, but for 40 minutes we’re playing basketball, fans are going crazy, we’re in our home gym, it’s our last game at home—it’s just fun.”

For the second semifinal, Columbia fans traveled well, too, and brought white rally towels and light blue and white pompoms. A family of four carried a handwritten sign on brown packing paper that was so long that it was best to have two people holding it. “All my dad wants for his 70th birthday is a Columbia win,” it read. (Dad’s birthday is Saturday, the day of the tournament final.)

The notable names in attendance included Harvard legend Allison Feaster; current UConn women’s basketball stars Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd; former WNBA coach Dan Hughes (who called the game alongside Elyse Woodward); and members of the Princeton, Harvard and Columbia men’s basketball teams. The Princeton men’s team is also the top seed in the men’s tournament, which begins Saturday at Lavietes, and the whole team appeared to be there Friday, arriving as the starters were announced and sitting just a few rows from the Harvard men’s players. One particularly exuberant player even strummed an air guitar after a 3-pointer by Princeton senior guard Abby Meyers.

“Shoutout to our men’s team for being here. That’s awesome,” Berube said unprompted after the first semifinal.

(The Yale men’s basketball team was the odd one out, despite being in town as the second seed in the men’s tournament. Head coach James Jones told reporters on Friday, “We certainly support our women’s basketball team as much as possible. As it is, their game kind of coincides with our dinner plans … So we will be following their game and rooting them on and wishing them luck [from afar].”)

“I just want to give out a special thanks to our fans,” Columbia sophomore guard Abbey Hsu said postgame. “All year round, [at] home games, they did so amazing, and for them to make the trip out here, it’s just a special place at Columbia.”

And Hsu showed all the fans what she can do, just as Griffith had predicted. On Thursday, Griffith voiced her displeasure that Hsu, whose 91 3-pointers in the regular season ranked third in Ivy League history, wasn’t a First Team All-Ivy selection alongside teammate Kaitlyn Davis.

“Abbey’s one of the best shooters in the country. … She’s going to break the Ivy League 3-point record this season. And she didn’t make first team,” Griffith said. “So I guess that’s not good enough for everybody else. So she’s good enough for us, I can tell you that. … I just know that she’s going to prove herself and prove that tomorrow, but it doesn’t really matter to her. She’s just trying to win a basketball game.”

In the decisive first quarter on Friday, which ended 22-5, Hsu hit a layup and three tightly guarded 3-pointers. She was fouled on the third one with three seconds remaining and hit the free throw, giving her 12 points in less than 10 minutes of playing time. Guth said postgame that the Bulldogs stuck to their game plan at times guarding Hsu, but she still hit “some big-time shots” and finished with 18 points on four 3-pointers.

“Everybody thinks she’s a second-team player,” Griffith said postgame. “That’s fine. Keep saying that. She’ll keep showing them that she’s not. So I think just that confidence that she had today really affected our entire team and … inspired them to know that we were ready.”

The Columbia bench celebrates during its 67-38 win over Yale in the Ivy League Tournament semifinals on March 11, 2022. (Photo credit: Brian Foley/Columbia University Athletics)

The passion and electricity in Lavietes Pavilion for both games were only fitting on a night when everything was on the line for four teams—and when Delaney-Smith might have coached her final game. During her 40 years at Harvard and 11 at Westwood High School in Massachusetts, Delaney-Smith has continuously championed gender equity, including filing several Title IX lawsuits at Westwood to ensure that her girls’ teams got equal treatment and resources. Ultimately, the goal is that—building on the efforts of Delaney-Smith and others—electric nights like Friday become the norm for women’s basketball.

“Any time I talk equity with anyone, they always say, ‘Oh, well, there’s more pressure on [the men] because the gyms are full and the band’s playing and there’s all this pressure,’” Delaney-Smith said. “And the opposite is true. It’s much easier to play in a venue like this. It’s very, very hard for women all over the country to play in empty gyms without bands and fighting your schools to get support and to get the bands there and to get the cheerleaders there. … It’s really wonderful for the athletes to play in this kind of a venue. It’s fun to watch as well.”

Harvard’s performance in that raucous environment was a fitting sendoff for their gritty, confident head coach—and the final score didn’t take away from that.

“You talk about what Harvard did tonight with Princeton, with the environment here, that’s what Ivy basketball is all about,” Guth said. “That’s about not just a talented Harvard team but sending their coach out on the note that she so deserves. And I thought that that type of game and that type of atmosphere, it only brings more and more people to the gym, and it only excites people … That’s a story you want to tell, and I thought that that Harvard team should be so incredibly proud of the effort …

“That’s the story of Ivy women’s basketball: really amazing talent in this league and a tremendous atmosphere.”

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.

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