On a Friday night in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2018, the entire sports world stopped and stared. Finally, casual college basketball fans said, a 16-seed beat a 1-seed.
When a Jairus Lyles-powered UMBC Terriers squad topped the Virginia Cavaliers by 20 points in the Spectrum Center that night, it was something that had never happened before in men’s college basketball. When you talk about it, be sure to put an emphasis on the “men’s.”
Because a 16-seed had beaten a No. 1 seed before in college basketball. Before there was UMBC, there was the Harvard Crimson women’s basketball team. Before history at the Spectrum Center, there was chaos at Maples Pavilion. Before Virginia, there was Stanford.
The real first 16-over-1 upset was Harvard’s 71-67 triumph over Stanford in 1998.
The 16-seeded Crimson had to go cross-country and play the top-seeded Cardinal in their home arena. In comparison to 2018, the Terriers didn’t have to step inside John Paul Jones Arena. Maples Pavilion was so loud that day that Harvard head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith had to use flash cards to call out plays.
Despite the difference in seeding, Harvard was well armed to take on Stanford. The Cardinal were without two key players due to injury, going the game without Vanessa Nygaard and Kristin Folkl, two players who would go on to play in the WNBA. And Harvard had a resume that included 22 wins and the nation’s leading scorer in Allison Feaster. The Crimson also had two years of NCAA tournament experience.
Still, Stanford was the overwhelming favorite, having been to the Final Four three straight seasons. The Cardinal’s senior class had a 113-13 record and was 59-0 at Maples. This was going to be Harvard’s third year appearing in the tournament, but they had never won a game, losing to Vanderbilt in 1996 and North Carolina in 1997.
But without Nygaard — who had torn her ACL in the Pac-10 finale — the Cardinal didn’t seem so tough. Then, in practice during the week leading up to the game, Folkl — Stanford’s leading scorer and rebounder — went down with an injury. Suddenly, the mighty Cardinal really seemed vulnerable. And Harvard got a little extra motivation going into the tournament after being tabbed as a 16-seed, which they thought was “a slap in the face” according to a 2015 ESPN story.
"We all felt disrespected,” Harvard head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith told ESPN. “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."
Stanford won the tip and hit a three-pointer on its first possession. But then Harvard settled into that game-plan, and by the 9:22 mark in the first half the Crimson led by 12 points, up 22-9, the run capped off by a pair of free throws by Feaster.
"She probably, more than anyone I coached, had the unique ability to be a superstar who made her teammates better," Delaney-Smith told Fox Sports of Feaster in 2016. "In the beginning of the game, (VanDerveer) put a freshman on Allison. 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."
Indeed. Feaster was the real deal, no matter the opponent. By the 7:38 mark in the first half, she had 13 points on seven shots and four rebounds
Nearly 20 years to the day of Harvard’s iconic upset over Stanford in the @ncaawbb tournament, 16-seed UMBC did the unthinkable in @marchmadness: Beat 1-seed Virginia. pic.twitter.com/nCPpVuNJsP— NCAA (@NCAA) March 17, 2018
Stanford was attempting to play a fast-paced game and tried penetrating the paint with their guards, but Harvard’s defense held strong and mucked up the Cardinal’s game plan. Still, Stanford would battle back before the half, taking one-point lead at the 2:42 mark off a three-pointer from Regan Freuen, which capped off a 25-11 run for the Cardinal.
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But Harvard didn’t quit. They ended the half with nine unanswered points, a run punctuated by free throws from Sarah Russell, to take a 42-34 lead into the second half.
While Harvard was putting up points, the Crimson’s defense was the most impressive part of their performance. They held Stanford to 31 percent shooting in the first half and out-rebounded the Cardinal by 10. Stanford also had nine first half turnovers.
Stanford charged back again in the second half, cutting the lead down to a single point after a three-pointer from Melody Peterson at the 12:10 mark. ESPN broadcasters Ann Meyers and Dave Barnett could hardly hear each other when that basket sank as the 7,233-seat Maples Pavilion roared. It was an environment that the Crimson were not used to playing in.
Meyers: “What did you say?”
Barnett: “I was just thinking, this has go to be the loudest it's ever been at any point in any Harvard basketball game. Uncharted territory here for the Crimson.”
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Stanford briefly took a two-point lead off free throws from Heather Owen at 9:26 mark, but the Crimson settled back into the game and began trading blows with Stanford, the lead changing hands a few times over the next eight minutes.
Then, at the 1:33 mark, Harvard took the lead for the final time with Suzie Miller nailing a mid-range jumper in traffic. Those were Miller’s first points of the second half and Harvard led 66-65. The Crimson got a stop on the Cardinal’s next possession, and then Miller scored for the second time in the second half, connecting on a three-pointer with a hand in her face.
After Feaster grabbed a steal and hit a free throw, the game seemed over. Harvard was up five points with 28 seconds left. Stanford scored one more bucket, then botched their next possession. With three seconds left, Harvard led by four points. The reactions on the bench said it all: Stanford players were burying their heads while the Harvard ones were jumping up and down. The ensuing free throws didn’t matter.
“Well, the school with more history than any in the United States has pulled off a piece of basketball history. The first win ever by a No. 16 seed over a No. 1 seed,” Barnett said on the call. “Stanford, speechless. Harvard, beside themselves. 71-67, our final.”
As Barnett flipped the broadcast back to the SportsCenter studio with Mike Greenberg and Michael Kim, the Harvard players mobbed on the court, smiles covering each of their faces.
Stanford had a 59-game winning streak in Maples, and had won their last 35 games there by an average of 31 points. That streak was over.
Feaster finished the game with 35 points on 21 shots and 13 rebounds. She later played in the WNBA and overseas. She told the Harvard Crimson after the game: “This is one of the best wins I’ve ever experienced. I can’t tell you the amount of adversity we’ve faced just coming in here, but somehow we did it.”
Ironically, Miller later worked at Stanford in emergency medicine, according to a story from the Associated Press in 2008. Naturally, she was asked about this game and that shot in her interview.
In that same story, VanDerveer says she’s blocked the game out of her mind.
“I don’t even remember it,” she told the AP. “I never watched it. I never thought about it. I really kind of blanked it out. Quite a defense mechanism.”
Harvard lost in the second round of that NCAA tournament to Arkansas. It hasn’t been able to replicate the magic since. Stanford has since been to seven Final Fours.
But history can’t be erased or altered. The night of March 14, 1998 will live on forever — in infamy for Stanford and in glory for Harvard.