‘This is my Final Four’: The time a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1
In the world of sports, athletes often dedicate their entire lives to reaching the pinnacle of their profession, but for many, life at the top can be short-lived. Sometimes all a player gets to experience at the highest level is one minute on the court, one trip to the plate, one shot on goal or one checkered flag, but more often than not, that fleeting moment in the spotlight is a story all its own. This is One and Done, a FOX Sports series profiling athletes, their paths to success and the stories behind some of sports’ most ephemeral brushes with glory.
The topic is bound to come up at least once every March: How much longer will it be before a 16-seed beats a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament? And whenever the annual discussion inevitably comes to pass, Kathy Delaney-Smith can’t help but sigh.
That’s because Delaney-Smith, the women’s basketball coach at Harvard since 1982, already knows the answer. She was there when her team did it 18 years ago this week. The shame, she says, is that so few people outside of Cambridge and Palo Alto remember the day that the Crimson shocked top-seeded Stanford in arguably the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.
"The women’s game is still fighting for notoriety," Delaney-Smith told FOX Sports in a phone interview Tuesday, as her team prepares to face Hofstra on Thursday in the first round of the women’s NIT. "If it happened in the men’s game it would be like a news flash every year, but people don’t even remember it because it was a women’s game, which is unfortunate."
The Ivy League champs in 1996 and 1997, Harvard was no stranger to the postseason when it made the field again in 1998, even if it hadn’t yet won a game in the NCAA tournament.
It’s better now, but back then we were like a glorified Division-II.
Kathy Delaney-Smith, on the respect the Ivy League got in 1998
As a 14-seed in ’96, the Crimson hung closer than expected with Vanderbilt in their inaugural NCAA appearance thanks to a tournament-record 16 3-pointers, and though the 78-53 final score against North Carolina in ’97 was memorable for all the wrong reasons, Harvard played Marion Jones and the No. 1 seed Tar Heels virtually even after Carolina opened the game on a 24-4 run.
Stanford was a different animal, however. "The team of the decade," as Delaney-Smith calls them, the 21-5 Cardinal won national championships in 1990 and 1992 and had appeared in six of the previous eight Final Fours heading into the ’98 tournament. They also owned a 59-game home win streak at Maples Pavilion, the site of the opening-round game against Harvard.
That would all seemingly add up to a quick exit for a small-conference 16-seed without the luxury of scholarship players, but it was that attitude Delaney-Smith and her team thrived on leading up to the game.
"We sort of took it on the chin, as Ivy League schools did," Delaney-Smith said. "It’s better now, but back then we were like a glorified Division-II. We’d hear, ‘Did you unpack your bags? How much homework did you bring with you?’ and there was a lot of kind of funny banter around an Ivy League school playing in a national tournament. So we were experiencing all that, and you use that as fodder. You use that as ‘no one respects us,’ and that gets a little adrenaline going. So I think we were pretty darn confident."
It also helped that Stanford would be without two of its top three players after both Vanessa Nygaard and Kristin Folkl tore their ACLs in the week leading up to the game. Even so, Havard was by no means a favorite to win.
They understood that the game is runs and momentum swings, and they were well equipped to deal with that.
Kathy Delaney-Smith, on losing the lead late in the game
"That happens to all of us all of the time, and that was a good enough, strong enough, deep enough team to beat a 16-seed," Delaney-Smith said of the Cardinal. "We shouldn’t have been a 16-seed, and they felt, given their injuries, that they shouldn’t have been a 1-seed, however, I think a lot of people would argue that, with or without those injuries, they were a 1-seed.
"They had Olivia Scott, they were the team of the decade and Tara (VanDerveer) is a phenomenal coach," she continued. "So you just live with your injuries. That’s part of what we do. I hear that all the time, but it is what it is."
For Harvard’s part, the Crimson were led by senior forward Allison Feaster, the nation’s leading scorer during the 1997-98 season at 28.5 points per game. After her college career ended, Feaster went on to a successful professional career in both the WNBA and Europe, but at the time her individual accolades didn’t buy her as much respect as she deserved in the eyes of the public.
"She probably, more than anyone I coached, had the unique ability to be a superstar who made her teammates better," Delaney-Smith said. "She was not all about her points. Yes, she could put the ball in the basket. Yes, she could play defense. Yes, she could run the floor, but her greatest skill was that she made her teammates better.
"In the beginning of the game, (VanDerveer) put a freshman on Allison," Delaney-Smith added. "That’s just a sign of, ‘Well, Allison Feaster is great in the Ivy League, but she won’t be great in the world,’ but that wasn’t true."
By the time Harvard took a 43-34 lead into the half, however, it was clear that the Crimson, like their star player, were not a team to be overlooked — and at that point, it simply became a matter of holding on. It’s rare but not unheard of to see 16-seeds start hot in both the men’s and women’s game, but the true test comes after both coaches have had a chance to make halftime adjustments.
And true to form, Stanford rallied, eventually taking a 65-62 lead with less than three minutes to play. Whereas most longshots would fold, Harvard wasn’t content to congratulate itself on a good effort in a game it had no business winning.
"We were never thinking, ‘Ah, Stanford takes the lead, didn’t Harvard do well?’" Delaney-Smith said. "That’s the way the world was feeling and that’s the way the viewers were feeling, but that’s not the way my team was feeling at all. They understood that the game is runs and momentum swings, and they were well equipped to deal with that."
Soon after Stanford took the lead, a Feaster layup and Suzie Miller jumper gave the Crimson a 66-65 edge with 1:32 to play. A Miller 3 pushed the lead to four, and from there the Crimson held on for an improbable 71-67 win. The final buzzer was met with stunned silence from the Stanford crowd and euphoria from the Harvard bench.
"I remember in the press conference, Allison — somebody said, ‘Are you sorry that you chose Harvard and that you’re not at a school that can go to the Final Four?’ and Allison said, ‘This is my Final Four,’" Delaney-Smith recalled. "She goes, ‘What I am feeling right now is as good as what anybody feels in the Final Four.’ So that sums it up pretty nicely."
Still, there were more games left to play despite the frenzy, and soon after the win, Harvard turned its attention toward its second-round opponent, ninth-seeded Arkansas.
At the time, first- and second-round games were played at the higher seed’s home arena – today, first- and second-round games in the women’s tournament are held at home sites of the top four teams in each region — but since Arkansas’ first-round game was played at the University of Hawaii and Harvard was already in California, the teams met at Stanford rather than travel all the way to Fayetteville with no turnaround time.
With the following week’s regional semifinals and finals also in nearby Oakland, Harvard also frantically made arrangements to stay the entire next week at Stanford should it get by the Razorbacks, but those plans soon became unnecessary.
The night before Harvard’s second-round game, starting center Rose Janowski – the team’s only player over 6 feet tall – had to be rushed to the hospital with a ruptured ovary. Her absence left the Crimson without a true center in addition to traumatizing the rest of the team, and while Janowski was in surgery, Harvard fell to Arkansas 82-64.
"I’ll be honest with you, the whole medical situation with our teammate was dominant," Delaney-Smith said of her team’s mindset during the loss to the Razorbacks, who eventually went on to reach the Final Four. "It was a lousy thing, and Rose stayed out there for a number of weeks. She didn’t come back to school right away. She had to stay out there in the hospital for a bit, and I think probably all of us felt that if we had Rose we could have come closer or done a better job.
"But I don’t think I’ve told five people that story," Delaney-Smith added of Janowski’s injury, "because it’s not an excuse."
Nor does the second-round loss diminish what Delaney-Smith’s plucky Harvard team accomplished.
Since the women’s tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1994, Harvard is the only 16-seed to win in 88 first-round chances. Similarly, in the men’s tournament, 1-seeds are 124-0 against 16s since the field grew to 64 in 1985. Considering the current lack of parity in the women’s game — an imbalance Delaney-Smith fully acknowledges — it seems unlikely that another women’s team joins Harvard in tournament lore anytime soon, but when it comes to the men, Delaney-Smith said it’s only a matter of time.
"How many great players are there in women’s basketball and how many great players are there in men’s basketball?" Delaney-Smith said. "Probably still more in men’s basketball. It’s so much better now (in the women’s game), but we’re not there yet. With the men, how many times has it almost happened where it came down to the last shot? It’s about to happen, don’t you think?"
History says no, but as the Harvard women proved in 1998, there truly is no such thing as a sure thing in March.
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