Days before the championship game, Jehan Clark was heading to class when she noticed something.
“Back then, our student center was called Loeb,” Clark said via phone. “I remember seeing this huge poster of myself. I was a sophomore. You walk to class, and you look like a mini celebrity.”
It was March 1997, and the NYU women’s basketball team was a mere four quarters away from winning the school’s first National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III championship. Coming off of a season in which they reached the Final Four, the team dominated their way to a 28-1 record, propelled by a suffocating defense that had held their opponents to 30.9% from the field and 23.4% from three. They had won all their games in the tournament by double digits, exuding the swagger of a championship-level team that embraced and enjoyed the high-stakes of pressurized games.
“Frankly, we were just that good,” Clark said. “We had been to the Final Four before. We knew what it felt like being on that stage. So that wasn’t necessarily anything new or to feel pressure about.”
They were a team headlined by the trio of Jen Krolikowski, Marsha Harris, and Jehan Clark. As co-captains, senior Krolikowski and junior Harris were the leaders of the team. Krowlikowski was a first team All-American that season. With Harris, the team had a player who was often the undisputed best player in the game.
“She was one of the best athletes, if not the best athlete, every single time we stepped on the court,” Jenny Schinella, who was one of the four sophomores on the team, said.
Meanwhile, Clark was an exceptional defender that always had the opposing player on edge.
“Her hands are probably faster than anybody else’s hands I’ve ever seen,” Harris said.
Led by the headlining trio, the team prepared for their championship game against University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Strategically, the players were as ready for UW-Eau Claire as they could be, a credit to the coaching staff that had diligently gone over every minute detail of their game plan with them.
“Every play the other team ran, we had practiced defending that play over and over again,” Schinella said. “We prepared so well.”
Emotionally, even for the returnees from the team that went to the Final Four, the atmosphere in the stadium was exhilarating. It was not just that this was a championship game, nor that they could become the first NYU team ever to win a Division III championship. Thanks to their near-perfect record, the team had home court advantage for the game, which was to be played at NYU’s Coles Sports and Recreation Center.
“I’ve never seen the NYU gym that full before,” Clark said.
“Even you asking me that question gives me goosebumps,” Schinella recalled.
To this day, the players cannot pinpoint a singular explanation for why they found themselves trailing by double digits for large portions of the game. The team went into halftime down double digits.
“The first half we didn’t play well. I didn’t play well,” Harris said. “It just happens sometimes in certain games. I don’t think that their defense was exceptional or anything like that.”
At least for Harris, tearing her left thumb ligament while saving a loose ball certainly did not help.
“It was the first half. There was a ball going out of bounds, and I tried to save it,” Harris said. “I knew [the thumb] was hurt then. I remember Jen (Krowlikowski) inbounded the ball to me, and I was like you might want to throw it a little softer because I can’t catch.”
Whether it was due to nerves, the unpredictable variances of basketball, or Harris’ injury, NYU struggled to assert control as they continued to trail in the second half. With 6 minutes and 25 seconds remaining, NYU still trailed UW-Eau Claire 61-50.
“It was not a game that we felt in control of from the beginning,” head coach Janice Quinn, who is now NYU’s Senior Associate Director of Athletics, said. “It was not a game that had a great flow to it for us.”
For a team that had become accustomed to not just winning but winning convincingly, the frustration of trailing without being able to close the gap was a feeling they had not experienced for a long time. However, players do not recall feeling unsettled, even as the game seemingly reached a stasis with UW-Eau Claire refusing to concede their double digit lead.
“I think the strangest thing to tell someone else about that game is there was never really a point where we were frenzied or overly concerned,” Schinella said. “When you have people on your team like Marsha Harris who is just a shining star … you have a sense of confidence when you have a teammate like that.”
With less than a minute remaining, NYU had managed to close the deficit to two. Needing to score, Coach Quinn called a timeout and drew up a play. It was a play she dubbed “Indiana” as a nod to Bob Knight, the head coach of Indiana University team from whom she stole the play after he deployed it in their preseason National Invitation Tournament Championship game at Madison Square Garden. It was a play the team practiced all year but never ran. In fact, senior Christin Muller called for the play a couple possessions before, and the coaching staff had overruled her.
If Coach Quinn was saving the play for a rainy day, she could not have found a more perfect time to deploy it. Out of the timeout, Christin Muller found Jen Krolikowski for a mid-range jumper that tied the game 70-70 with 26 seconds left.
The ensuing 26 seconds might be the most iconic moment in the history of NYU sports. Defensively, they executed their game plan seamlessly, doubling Eau-Claire’s big man upon the entry pass to force a tough turnaround jump shot. Junior Aloysia Jaques gathered the rebound with seven seconds left and passed the ball to Marsha Harris, who jetted down the floor to give NYU their first lead of the game with two seconds left. Eau-Claire inbounded the ball, and the game was over.
“I saw that they essentially only had one person back,” Harris said. “All I had to do was beat that one person. I thought that would be relatively easy to do because she was kind of short. So at that point it was just get to the rim.”
After the final whistle, the adulations soon followed, both from the NYU community and the city at-large. The team received the opportunity to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani shared in the celebrations by inviting the team to his office. The Knicks invited the team to a game, and the players got to step onto the court during halftime and receive cheers from the fans at Madison Square Garden. Marsha Harris, a lifelong Mets fan, threw out a first pitch at Shea Stadium that summer.
23 years later, Coach Quinn and the players might not remember each minute detail of that season, but it is striking how much of that game still linger in their memory. Coach Quinn remembers the first time her players cut the lead to single digits and how that felt like a breath of fresh air. Jehan Clark can still recall Coach Quinn showing her belief in the team during timeouts, even when they were down 15 points. Marsha Harris can describe the play “Indiana” in almost perfect detail. And why shouldn’t they? It was a win that perfectly capped a dominant season with an ending that might be considered even too perfect for dramatic sports movies. The team only led for all of two seconds, but in a championship game where the results matter more than the process, they had completed the task they set out to achieve.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 14, e-print edition. Email Kevin Ryu at [email protected]