Oral history: Harvard stuns Stanford

March 18, 2015, 10:51 PM

— -- A week before the NCAA tournament opener, Stanford was positioned as one of the best teams in the country, after three straight trips to the Final Four. Seven days later, the Cardinal became the first and only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16, with a 71-67 defeat against Harvard. As with all great sports upsets, there is an intriguing backstory only the people involved can tell. We consulted our colleagues at FiveThirtyEight for some statistical context. Then we spoke with nine prominent people involved in the game and asked them to set the scene in an oral history of that game -- starting with a devastating moment at the end of Stanford's Pac-10 finale against Oregon State.

Vanessa Nygaard, former Stanford forward and longtime WNBA, college and high school coach: "We were ahead comfortably, but then Oregon State started closing the gap, and I went back in."

Beth Goode, former Stanford sports information director and current senior women's administrator: "Vanessa's injury happened right in front of me. It was one of those unmistakable things when she went down. You knew it wasn't good."

Tara VanDerveer, Stanford coach, one of five coaches in NCAA women's history with 900-plus wins: "The doctor at Oregon State said it was not an ACL, and we would have it looked at when we got back on Sunday, which was selection day."

Nygaard, Stanford forward: "We came back to Stanford, and the MRI was scheduled. The first test in Oregon showed that it wasn't fully torn, but I was in the hospital on selection day, getting my MRI. I was begging the tech to tell me what he saw because I knew the tech could read it. But he wouldn't tell me."

Goode, Stanford SID: "When we got back to campus on Sunday, I remember getting calls from the NCAA committee trying to figure out what the impact of her injury was. At that point, we didn't know."

Jean Lenti Ponsetto, NCAA selection committee chair from DePaul: "By Saturday afternoon, when Nygaard was injured, the bracket was probably almost done. I know we tried to get ahold of Tara after we had heard that there was an injury at Stanford. The rule is that the committee is notified as soon as an injury happens, but that wasn't probably easy at that point because we were holed up. I remember the NCAA staff had tried to reach Tara, and she was out walking her dog. We had two brackets, one with them as a No. 1 seed and another with them as a No. 2. But the bottom line is, the committee went with the info we had. And we left them at a No. 1. I remember asking Tara later, 'Were you really out walking your dog while we were trying to reach you?' She said, 'I guess.'"

Nygaard, Stanford forward: "I went directly to Tara's house after my MRI to watch the selection show. I remember us getting the No. 1 seed and then getting the call from the doctor that it was a torn ACL. My immediate reaction was, 'I'm playing anyway. I'm getting a brace and I'm playing.' John Elway once played on a torn ACL, so I figured I could. Our doctor told me that for my future health, he could not allow it, and I was saying, 'What documents do I have to sign? I'll sign whatever.' To appease me, I think, they fit me for a brace. But they all knew there was no way I was playing."

Goode, Stanford SID: "We got on a conference call with Tara and the media, talking about the seeding and the injury, and Vanessa actually got on the call and said that she was going to be able to play, which was news to me and a little shocking in the middle of a call."

Harvard, meanwhile, had just finished arguably the most successful season in program history, with a 22-4 record and the nation's leading scorer in Allison Feaster. Then the No. 16 popped up next to the Crimson's name as the brackets were rolled out.

Dr. Suzie Miller, former Harvard guard who now practices medicine in Sydney, Australia: "We were completely ticked. It really was offensive. There were shouts and then silence. It was a slap in the face to the Ivy League."

Kathy Delaney-Smith, Harvard coach, now in her 33rd year with the Crimson: "We all felt disrespected -- we thought we were better than a 16-seed. It was the fuel that fired us, and that was probably where we formed our game plan."

Alison Seanor, former Harvard forward who is raising a 2-year-old son in Hoboken, New Jersey, after a long career as a financial industry headhunter: "It was the third year in a row we were a 16-seed. So it was like, 'Really? Again?' We were having a good year, and Allison was leading the nation in scoring. We were going to show people."

Ponsetto, selection committee chair: "We had this big RPI book. We were really conscientious about how we placed conference champions. If Harvard ended up on that line, it's because their RPI, their body of work and their number of top-100 wins warranted it."

The day after the seedings were released, Stanford went back to practice. The team was running a standard, five-player weave drill when Stanford All-American Kristin Folkl, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, went down.

VanDerveer, Stanford coach: "She got clipped in the air and came down awkwardly. She let out a scream, and I thought, 'This is a nightmare.' I remember feeling physically ill. We basically had to stop practice. It was like a morgue in there. No one wanted to keep going."

Milena Flores, former Stanford point guard and now an assistant coach at Princeton: "You could hear the buzzing in your ears. They took her to the training room, and we just shot free throws and tried to gather ourselves."

Nygaard, Stanford forward: "Kristin was a Greek goddess. I just kept thinking, 'There's no way that actually just happened.'"

Goode, Stanford SID: "There was a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at practice to write a story about Kristin, and he saw it happen. He told me, 'You know I have to write about this.' And I said, 'Yes, but I don't know what this is.' Very quickly after that, we got a lot of attention."

Folkl would say later, "None of it seemed real. We were reeling." The Cardinal struggled to pick up the pieces as Harvard prepared to travel west.

VanDerveer, Stanford coach: "Everyone was totally in the tank. As hard as you tried, there was no enthusiasm. The kids all wanted to move on from here and play pro ball, and they were watching their buddies drop one by one. I think everyone was afraid of getting hurt."

Delaney-Smith, Harvard coach: "I don't remember feeling happy or sad or feeling sorry for Stanford. To be honest, I would have taken the last five players on their team. We all have injuries. Yeah, it is too bad that happened. But you have 15 scholarships, and hopefully people are prepared to step in."

Miller, Harvard guard: "Folkl was actually a hero of mine because she played basketball and volleyball at Stanford. I had tried to do that at Harvard and then quickly realized I would fail out of school. So I kind of idolized her."

Seanor, Harvard forward: "We didn't have the Internet like we do now. I heard they had one or two players out, but it kind of went in one ear and out the other. After the fact, I remember thinking, 'Huh, it's a good thing they didn't have those players out there.'"

Harvard arrived at Stanford two days before the game.

Miller, Harvard guard: "We went out to practice on that bouncy floor they had, and I hated it. I couldn't shoot worth anything. I felt very off -- I was super stressed. I kept saying, 'How is this legal?' But I also remember us having a really good time. A lot of us had looked at Stanford for school when we were in high school, so we had a lot of fun walking around campus. We took silly pictures with this sculpture of The Thinker. We were in our shorts, and the weather was really, really nice, and we were all saying, 'Why didn't we go to Stanford?'"

Allison Feaster, Harvard forward and top scorer who now lives in Spain after a professional career in the WNBA and overseas: "We were all anxious on game day. It was our first nationally televised game, and we were ready. Despite our attempts to portray confidence and strength, we were still a bit in awe of the situation. What was going to happen at tipoff when the crowd started cheering and the floor in Maples Pavilion began to shake?"

Nygaard, Stanford forward: "My brace came in the day before, and I had my uniform on. In my stupid mind, I was going to play. I would love to say I was super tuned in to my teammates that day and how everybody was feeling, but I was young and irrational."

Delaney-Smith, Harvard coach: "I saw Tara walking in the parking lot, and she was holding balloons -- I think it was someone's birthday or something -- and she started to talk to me about the injuries. I was like, 'Tara, don't even. If you want sympathy from me, you are not going to get it.' And then one of our assistant coaches went back to our locker room after we started warm-ups and one of the event managers guarding the locker room said, 'Welcome to the world of real basketball.' You know I used that with our team."

Seanor, Harvard forward: "I don't think any of us thought we couldn't win. We had one of the best players in the country on our team, and that's a pretty good backstop. Kathy had been pushing our buttons all week. We'd played No. 1 seeds before -- it wasn't our first rodeo. I just remember we played really late that day, and the whole day, there were a lot of nerves."

Flores, Stanford guard: "I was actually feeling really good going into the game. I didn't have a good start to the season and had been trying to figure out how to have a stronger relationship with Tara, and that had been a struggle. But before that game, I felt good about where I was going, and I knew my play was going to be important."

Led by a red-hot Feaster, Harvard jumped out to a quick 18-7 lead on the Cardinal.

Miller, Harvard guard: "It felt so good from the start -- we were in the flow. We planned to triple-team their best player, Olympia Scott, and make everybody else beat us, and it was working. And Allison was out to prove a point."

Feaster, Harvard forward: "I can recall being told before the game that a freshman would be defending me. At the time, I was the leading scorer in the country, and I am sure that many people felt that my high scoring average was a reflection of the level of competition in the Ivy League."

VanDerveer, Stanford coach: "We could not guard Feaster. She was too big for a little and too little for a big. She was really a terrific player. No matter what we did, it didn't work. No one had anything in the tank. We were playing in mud."

Flores, Stanford guard: "They played a zone, and for whatever reason, we couldn't figure it out. We were out of rhythm and couldn't put together good possessions. They were making shots early, and any time that happens, you start to look at each other like, 'What's going on?' Once things aren't going well, every possession starts to feel a little heavier. We felt good going in ... and then we didn't very quickly."

Delaney-Smith, Harvard coach: "I wasn't surprised. Honestly, I thought we matched up well with them. It was a game I thought we could win from the start. I don't know if Stanford overlooked us. There had to be a little of that, I'm sure, based on their press conference the day before the game. But we used that too. 'We are not respected' became our mantra."

Seanor, Harvard forward: "The crowd was really big and loud, but we were just playing our game. At one point, I looked over, and I saw Folkl and Nygaard sitting at the end of the bench with braces on and crutches, and I remember feeling really bad for them. I didn't know them at all. But I thought, 'That really stinks.' Tara was up and moving a lot and yelling, and the [Stanford] team was just quiet."

By halftime, Harvard had surged to a nine-point lead.

Seanor, Harvard forward: "We were in the men's locker room, and the message was 'Keep it up.' There were no huge pats on the back. This is what we expected to do. Maybe nobody else expected it, but we did."

Miller, Harvard guard: "We all knew the other shoe would drop and they would come back, and we just had to hold them off. And that's exactly what happened."

Stanford rallied back to take a 65-62 lead with 3:58 to go. The two teams went back and forth until a crucial Feaster steal and a huge chance in the corner for Miller with 46 seconds to go.

Miller, Harvard guard: "I think everyone thought the ball was going to Allison, but I got a great pass, and I remember checking my feet. I knew it was going in when it left my hand. The irony is, I never liked taking that shot in the corner. But that was the shot I ended up making."

Feaster, Harvard forward: "I don't remember exactly what I was thinking in that moment, but I remember seeing photos of my teammates on the bench with tears in their eyes, holding hands."

Delaney-Smith, Harvard coach: "We ran a designed quick-hitter for Suzie, and she hit the 3 that won the game. When the buzzer sounded, it was just euphoria."

Seanor, Harvard forward: "It was mayhem, such joy and jumping and laughing. I got interviewed by Nancy Lieberman, and she was holding a big mike with 'ESPN' on it and it was surreal. I kept thinking, 'Other teams get to do this -- not us.'"

Flores, Stanford guard: "You go to Stanford to be a part of great teams every year -- that was the expectation. You feel like you've let down the entire program, your teammates. We did not play well. That is not to take anything away from Harvard because they played a fantastic game. But it was devastating."

Nygaard, Stanford forward: "I was a disaster, basically. I could have handled it better, in retrospect. Ann Meyers was broadcasting the game, and after, she came over and was talking to me and trying to help me. I had put so much into it. I'm probably still not over it."

Goode, Stanford SID: "More than anything, I remember Vanessa after the game. I remember her sitting on the bench in hysterics, trying to grapple with all the emotions."

VanDerveer, Stanford coach: "For me, losing that game wasn't even close to the most painful loss we'd experienced. It was the loss of the players. I don't think [Harvard was] a 16-seed, and we weren't a 1-seed. They were a very good team -- they had a great player, an excellent coach, and I think it was the perfect storm."

Delaney-Smith, Harvard coach: "It was not disbelief for us. I never really thought about the 16-1 matchup or the history or that it had never been done before. It was more Harvard just beat Stanford. I knew our kids just had this undeniable belief in themselves, and that was the foundation for that win. It was a wonderful, earned victory."

VanDerveer, Stanford coach: "I've never watched that tape."

FiveThirtyEight: "Harvard's win was the first and last time a top-three seed lost a first-round game in the NCAA women's tournament. Through 21 years and 252 such games, top-three seeds have won an astounding 99.6 percent of the time (251-1). By comparison, that is the same chance that our statistical model gives Kentucky's men's team to win in its first-round game this year. Overall, the chances of a men's No. 1 seed losing in the first round are about 10 times greater than a women's No. 1 falling to a No. 16 seed."

Miller, Harvard guard: "I was interviewing for my residency at Stanford, and the doctor that was doing the interview came in and said, 'I know who you are. How dare you?' I didn't have any idea what was going on. I was appalled, and then he cracked up laughing and said, 'I was at that game. I know you made the shot.' And the entire interview basically became about basketball."

Delaney-Smith, Harvard coach: "Stanford fans are very loyal and die-hard. But one of them was very angry with me. She said, 'You know you wouldn't have won if we didn't have the injuries.' And it makes me giggle."

Flores, Stanford guard: "I've been coaching at Princeton for eight years and at Yale for two years before that. At Harvard, they have this display case that basically chronicled that game. And it was there every time I walked in. I'm not bitter, and it doesn't upset me. But it gets brought up every year. And you know exactly when it comes up because people start sending me texts with screen shots."

Miller, Harvard guard: "Every year, I get so nervous watching the first round of the men's tournament. I don't want to see a No. 16 beat a 1. I want it to be only us forever."

Harvard's magic ran out in the second round of the tournament. Starting center Rose Janowski missed the game with an illness, and the Crimson fell 82-64 to a hot-shooting Arkansas team. The ninth-seeded Razorbacks, under head coach Gary Blair (now at Texas A&M), reached the Final Four in Kansas City that season and became the lowest seed in tournament history to reach the national semifinals. Harvard remains the only Ivy League team to win a game in the NCAA tournament.