For the first twenty minutes tonight, Columbia’s offense struggled to create open looks against an energized and determined Holy Cross team. Down 30-14 at halftime, the Lions looked lost and exhausted. And it was completely understandable. No one in the 539 people order diflucan in attendance would have faulted Columbia if the Lions had come back out in the second half and lost by 10 or 15 points. After all, this was their fourth game in five days. Coach Smith’s bunch had just knocked off five opponents in a row, including three in three days on a West Coast trip to Los Angeles. They had no legs in the first half, as evidenced by the 5-21 shooting effort that had yielded them 14 points, led by big man Mark Cisco’s whopping four.
Instead of folding though, Columbia came out and matched the Crusaders’ energy in the second half. The Lions buckled down on defense and protected the paint, altering shots and ripping down boards. It wasn’t as if Barbour, Lyles, and Rosenberg started nailing every shot they were taking—this was a slow, steady comeback based on forcing off-balance shots and turnovers on the defensive end. It’s a lot easier to mount a comeback when you hold your opponent to 10 points in the final 17:50 of the game. That’s precisely what Columbia was able to accomplish. They shot under 25% for the game, but you can still win a ballgame shooting that poorly when you win the turnover battle by 12 (18-6).
That’s how these Lions have done it all year. Since Agho went down, Coach Smith has reassessed his team’s strengths and installed a patient offense and an all-hands-on-deck defense that limits second chances and gets hands in passing lanes. Columbia did a great job of hedging on screens in the second half and making Holy Cross’ guards make tough passes. Alex Rosenberg was absolutely all over the place. The freshman forward has Energizer batteries; he’s always moving and he never gives up on a rebound. The stat line showed that tonight, as the wing finished with 15 rebounds along with 9 points. If Rosenberg can be more aggressive in taking it to the hoop, he’ll be a more efficient scorer on nights like tonight when his shot isn’t falling. Along with Cornell’s Shonn Miller and Harvard’s Steve Mondou-Missi, Rosenberg must be on everyone’s Rookie of the Year short list.
Tonight, the Lions took those extra possessions they earned on the defensive end and made sure that, if nothing else, they would get good shots from them. In the second half, they started feeding Cisco more inside and the center’s strength was simply too much for the Crusaders to handle. Cisco’s footwork has improved to the point that he’s going to be a difficult stop every time he gets the ball down low in Ivy play. There are quite a few Ivy teams with no one on their roster to stop a guy with his muscle on the block. Cisco’s greatest impact though was on the defensive end tonight. Disciplined and patient, number 55 shut down the Holy Cross interior game by not allowing the Crusader post players to gain position too low, while staying straight up and not fouling when an opponent did manage to get an inside shot off. We’ll see if Coach Smith decides to up the senior’s minutes (he’s averaging 22 mins. per game), as the Lions are clearly a better team when he’s on the court. John Daniels, back from an injury that kept him out of the opening games, has also been a key contributor on the boards, though he was not much of a factor in tonight’s game.
Speaking of players who had surprisingly little impact on tonight’s game, Meiko Lyles, the Ivy League Player of the Week who had knocked down a sizzling 20 of his last 32 three-point attempts coming into tonight, was noticeably quiet aside from an important three minute stretch when he kicked off Columbia’s game-changing 15-0 run with five straight points. Despite the quiet night (1-5, 1 rb, 1 stl, 1 blk), it’s clear that Lyles has the potential to be an important shooting weapon that will demand opponents’ attention come conference time.
Any recap would be remiss without mentioning Brian Barbour, the engine of this team, who despite poor shooting tonight, is the team’s best passer and is making this limited offense go, sometimes single-handedly.
Now, it’s certainly too soon to start calling this Columbia team a contender. We were, after all, suggesting a few weeks ago that the Lions would be mired in the Ivy basement, battling with Dartmouth to avoid the cellar position. It seems that they are dealing with the loss of Agho surprisingly well though, and six wins in a row merits recognition (first six-game winning streak for Columbia since 1982!), no matter who the opponents are (two D-III squads, three RPI 200 teams, and Manhattan).
The offense is still anemic, but it’s hard to deny what the defense is accomplishing. Most importantly though, the team has heart. That’s more than we can say for some struggling Ivies right now. Perhaps we should raise our expectations for Columbia from the league’s bottom tier to somewhere in the middle of the bunched-up pack of teams chasing Harvard.