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Mike Lopresti | | January 27, 2022

NCAA Video Vault: Reliving the first-ever 16-over-1 upset, when the Harvard women toppled Stanford

Watch the final 4 minutes of 1998's historic Harvard-Stanford 16-over-1 upset

In the end that historic March, one thing seemed clear: Nobody saw the Harvard women coming.

Here they were, 22-4, led by the nation’s leading scorer in Allison Feaster and her 28.5 points per game. But when the bracket for the 1998 NCAA tournament came out, all that was only good enough for . . . a No. 16 seed? Fine season ladies, now hop on a plane and fly 3,000 miles to play mighty Stanford on the Cardinal’s home court.

“I felt, we felt — and maybe this was part of the fuel as we had been feeling all along — disrespected,” coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said 24 years later.

It was not the first time. Take what had happened when Harvard played in the previous two tournaments — the first two NCAA bids in school history. “We’d get asked these silly questions by the media. 'Did you bring your books on the road? Did you even unpack your suitcase? I can’t believe we even got you out of the library,'” Delaney-Smith said. “It took a long time for the Ivy League in many sports, but clearly in women’s basketball, to get respect. We were maybe considered to be a glorified Division II school.”

Until March 14, 1998.

The record book shows that Harvard shocked the basketball world that day. The 71-67 victory over Stanford was the first time a No. 16 seed had ever beaten a No. 1 seed in either the women’s or men’s tournament. More than two decades later, only the UMBC men of 2018 have matched the feat when they stunned Virginia. That makes the current overall all-gender record of No. 1s in the matchup 250-2 (through the 2021 tournaments). Those were the enormously long odds the Crimson women overturned that day.

“It still resonates,” Feaster said, two decades after the fact. “I’m pretty sure we felt disrespected. But without that 16 seed we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation now, honestly. So in hindsight, it was worth it.”

There is something of an asterisk to the moment, since Stanford had the unspeakably bad luck of having two starters — including All-American Kristin Folkl — go down with ACL knee injuries in the days before the game. But still. Being first is being first. And, on the women’s side, still the only.

“A lot of people feel it put Harvard on the map, but I felt like we were on the map before that game,” Delaney-Smith said. “But it was a little piece of history so in that regard, l love that it was our contribution.”

MORE VAULT: When Mississippi State shocked UConn at the buzzer in the 2017 Final Four

And this is how it happened.

“It was kind of a perfect storm,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer would later say. “They were a 16 that wasn’t really a 16. We were a one that wasn’t really a one.”

The Cardinal had taken some hits that season with five defeats, but the program was deeply respected, coming off three consecutive Final Four appearances. Stanford was a No. 1 seed on reputation, among other things. Harvard’s assignment was daunting, playing in Maples Pavilion before one of the loudest home crowds in women’s basketball. The Cardinal had won 59 games in a row there.

Delaney-Smith knew about the Stanford injuries, taking forwards Folkl, Vanessa Nygaard and their 34 points a game out of the lineup. Two ACLs in one week? It seemed then, and seems now, a shocking dose of foul fate. But while Delaney-Smith felt for the players, she wasn’t about to feel exceptionally sorry for Stanford as an opponent. “We all have injuries. I’ve just never been a fan of saying, 'Oh well, our best player’s out,'” she said. “Would they have liked to have had those players back? Sure. But you know what? I would have taken her next 13 players. She still had enough people to win. It was still an upset.”

The Harvard coach tried to follow a tricky middle ground that week, seriously preparing for the challenge ahead without things getting too heavy. “I must have struck the right chord about handling their home crowd, and making jokes,” Delaney-Smith said. “Obviously we get too intense at times and I was trying not to do that. The pressure was going to be high enough.”

So was the skepticism from the outside world. Two stories about that.

Delaney-Smith would hear later from an ESPN person about a network production conference call that week, when plans were being made for coverage of the tournament. At one point, the topic on the call was how to handle the Stanford-Arkansas game in the second round. “One person on this 20-person conference call asked, 'What if Harvard wins?'” Delaney-Smith said. “And everybody on the phone laughed.”

Then there was an interlude before the game. “The venue people were wonderful, but they were diehard Stanford fans,” Delaney-Smith said. “So we came running out of the locker room to warm up, and there was this very avid fan who said 'Welcome to real basketball’ to the end of the line of players and a couple of coaches who could hear it. That comment, of course, was shared with my team before tip-off.”

On that note, the game began. “We were ready,” Feaster said. “We all embodied this mantra, 'Act as if your role is the most important role on the team.'” Her role was to score, which she did. A lot. She would not stop that day until she had 35 points, to go with 13 rebounds.

“Tara chose to have a freshman guard her. That doesn’t show much respect in my opinion,” Delaney-Smith said. “That lasted about three minutes and they knew that wasn’t going to work.

“People said she played out of our mind. Truth be told, she played like that every single game.”

Feaster had taken the floor on a mission. “It’s one thing if you’re doing it against competition that isn’t considered the upper echelon of college basketball. That day was a statement for our program, for me as a player.”

At halftime, Harvard led by nine points, and college basketball began to gasp. “I don’t know how many people expected us to be in the game at all,” Feaster said.

“Everyone was like, 'Harvard has played so well, but when is the bomb going to drop?’” Delaney-Smith remembered. “We ran into the locker room and my assistant coach politely said to that fan on the way in, 'We love real basketball.'

“It validated what we thought about going into the game, that we could compete and that we could win. But I think the strength of that group of athletes that year was to stay in the moment. So we’re going to start the second half 0-0, and we’re going to start all over again. You’re not going to try not to lose. A lot of teams will milk it and try not to lose. I think we stayed very present.”

But Stanford was not going away. Spurred by the home crowd, the Cardinal rallied to take a 65-62 lead with 2:57 left. If Harvard was to pull this off, someone would have to make some big plays to finish the job.

Feaster was one. After she missed a shot, Stanford had a fast break going that could have pushed the lead to 67-62, but Feaster raced back and picked off a pass. Then she scored on an inbounds play to cut the margin to 65-64.

After a Cardinal miss, the Crimson had a chance to take the lead. On the television screen, Delaney-Smith was shown quietly holding up a card Backdoor SHOOT. She had decided that week to use cards, wary about the noise in Maples Pavilion. The play resulted with future medical doctor Suzie Miller getting a pass, driving to the free line throw line and putting up a short jumper at 1:34 for a 66-65 lead.

Stanford called timeout, desperately needing to score. But a 3-point attempt bounced away, and Harvard had the rebound, with a chance to seal its legacy. One more basket would probably do it. Feaster, right? No, Miller was open in the corner. That’s where the ball went, not to the star. “That was a testament to the way we played in general,” Feaster said. “There weren’t a lot of people forcing shots or doing things out of character. We had a system.”

Without hesitation, Miller put up a 3-pointer with 46 seconds left. Dagger.

“Suzie Miller had won a lot of state championships in high school in both basketball and volleyball,” Delaney-Smith said, “so the kid knew how to win and knew how to handle pressure.”

It was soon over. The Harvard coach called the locker room scene “absolutely surreal.” Feaster can remember how “for us who were on that team, it was a culmination of years of work.” The Crimson would lose two days later to Arkansas, but the team had history, and had it for keeps.

It says something about the success and staying power of the two coaches that 24 years later, they remain at the same posts, though Delaney-Smith is retiring after the 2021-22 season. As colleagues and two of the coaching giants of their generation, they’ve shared many conversations. But not about 1998.

“Absolutely not. She does not have good feelings about that game,” Delaney-Smith said of VanDerveer, who has never watched a tape of that loss. “When I was a coach with USA Basketball and Tara was on the committee, we didn’t even talk about it then. I think for her it was too raw.”

The Crimson stood alone until 2018, when the UMBC men joined Harvard. Feaster watched that game on television, looking at Virginia falling behind and sensing the Cavaliers were “being besieged by some force that’s almost miraculous.” She understood about that. She lived it one night in Palo Alto.

Deep in their hearts, were Feaster and Delaney-Smith a little sorry to see UMBC happen? It meant the 1998 Crimson was no longer absolutely unique.

“There are two answers to that,” Delaney-Smith said. “Really, no, because it’s so thrilling and exciting. I was so happy for them because I know the feeling. But yes, because the trivia question that gets reported year in and year out. When the Virginia men lost, there were like 15 corrections (in the media). No one’s ever done it before? Well, you’re wrong. Someone had done it before. In that regard, I’m sorry we’re still not the only one who did it.”

Feaster was happy to watch another underdog’s joy, another example of inexplicable magic. “That’s the beauty of sports,” she said.

But the Harvard women of 1998 were first. They forever shall be.

Here's how the media reacted

We took a dive into to see how media outlets covered Harvard's upset.

New York Times News Service

The Miami Herald Wire Services

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

The Bangor Daily News

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