Harvard Women’s Basketball was the true first 16-seed to upset a 1-seed

For many, the first time a 16-seed in the NCAA tournament ever took down a 1-seed was in 2018 when UMBC took down Virginia on the men's side. But it was not, in fact, the first. It was Ivy League Harvard on the women's side, taking down the overall one-seed Stanford—on the road, in Stanford, a home game for the Cardinal in 1998.

Stanford was coming off its tenth straight PAC-10 title, and head coach Tara VanDerveer was already on a record-setting pace for wins. She had been hired in 1985 and, in her third season, reached the Sweet 16. They won their first national title in 1990, another in 1992, and reached the Final Four five times in the next seven years. Under VanDerveer's leadership, Stanford was officially a basketball program with power.

However, in that 98 season, injuries sidelined star players Vanessa Nygaard and Kristin Folkl. These were brutal injuries, too. The players combined for 34 points a game, and both tore an ACL ahead of the tourney.

On the other side of the court stood the Harvard Crimson, a team with a point to prove. Led by coach Kathy Delaney-Smith, who had been with the program since 1982, an impressive 22-4 record and the nation's leading scorer in Allison Feaster, the committee still ranked them as a 16-seed for the third straight year. It felt disrespectful, and it was.

The disrespect didn't stop there. The trope that an Ivy League couldn't be good at basketball continued, as the media would ask questions about the books they had to bring on the trip or the school work they needed to finish. Not basketball questions, but school-related questions. Even arena staff (since it was a Stanford home game) made similar comments to the players upon arrival. The world was giving Harvard all the bulletin board material that it needed.

And an upset was brewing.

Harvard led by 9 points at halftime, but most people, rightfully so, still thought Stanford would have it in them to come back and win the game. And they almost did, taking a 65-62 lead with 2:57 left in the game. At that moment, it felt as if Stanford could escape this nightmare.

And this is where we get to one of my favorite parts of the upset. Harvard was prepared for how loud the arena would be and made literal cards that called out the plays, as seen here.


                                                          Photo credit: Bassmaster


The play also worked, and Stanford took a 66-65 lead with 1:34 to go. After a missed Stanford three-pointer on the other end, Harvard came down and hit one of its own—a dagger. Harvard went up 69-65 with 46 seconds to go.

The final score read 71-67. Harvard didn't do anything in that game they hadn't done all season. They played their game as they always do and on that night, they were the better team. The locker room was described as "absolutely surreal." Harvard would lose the next game in the tournament, but it didn't matter. History had already been made.


Stanford was a 1-seed that wasn't really a 1, and Harvard was a 16-seed that wasn't really a 16. That is why we love March. That's why we play the games and fill out the brackets.

So remember, when people talk about UMBC and Fairleigh Dickinson, make sure they mention the 1998 Harvard women's basketball team, too. They did it first.

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