For six beautiful seconds, it was the biggest shot of Jeff Coby’s life.
The sophomore forward from Florida doesn’t have the traditional build of a three-point shooter. He’s 6-foot-9, a prototypical power forward who attempted just three shots from long-range his freshman season. As most Kyle Smith players are required to do, Coby added a three-point shot during the offseason, hitting a respectable 10 of 32 so far during this campaign.
None, though, were quite as important as that 10th shot. In the sauna that is Lavietes Pavilion in Cambridge, the 10th shot arced through the air after a brilliant feed from Maodo Lo found Coby all by himself, the clock running down, and the Lions needing a three to complete a brilliant second half comeback against a Harvard team that led by 17 at halftime.
It went in. The Columbia corner of the gym exploded. For six seconds, Coby was the hero.
Until Siyani Chambers took the ball right back down the court, Tommy Amaker eschewed a timeout and trusted his junior point guard, and Chambers delivered with an 18-foot jumper to give Harvard a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
If you had only watched the first half, it would come as a shock that Columbia was in this game at all. Harvard came out and blitzed the Lions with a long-range attack, as the visitors struggled to cover the likes of Chambers, Wesley Saunders, and Corbin Miller. Columbia scored a respectable 31 points, but their hosts scored 48. The general consensus of the On The Vine halftime show was that Columbia was already out of the contest.
(You can listen to the On The Vine Halftime Show, featuring myself, Steven Lau of the Columbia Spectator, and Kevin Whitaker of Big Apple Buckets, by clicking here.)
The second half was an entirely different story. After the game, senior center Cory Osetkowski referenced the coaches trying to fire the team up during the break; the message was heard loud and clear. The Lions ripped off a 14-1 run out of the break, cutting Harvard’s lead to just four. The run was a team effort — Osetkowski, Cohen, and Frankoski each had a bucket, while Maodo Lo scored the final six points and assisted on two scores. At around the same time, the Columbia band arrived at Lavietes, delayed by mechanical problems and nightmarish traffic. Their arrival, coupled with Columbia’s run, awakened a previously sleepy Cambridge crowd of just 1,624.
The final 13 minutes had the tenor of a heavyweight fight, each punch matched by a counter-punch. Columbia cut the deficit to two but couldn’t take the lead, and finally Harvard expanded their lead to six with a Jonah Travis layup with 3:46 to go.
Neither team scored for three minutes. Down six and with just 55 seconds to go, Lo knocked down a catch-and-shoot three off an inbound pass, and Chambers hoisted a wildly off-target three on the other end. The Lions’ night came down to one final possession, Coby’s shot was true, then Chambers landed the knockout blow on the other end. In a bit of cruel irony, it was Coby who threw the ball out of bounds on a desperation play with two seconds left, trying to flip the ball to Lo.
It was a classic game of basketball, one I was privileged to witness. It was also a crushing loss, knocking the Lions down to 3-4 in league play. They fell even further off the pack with a sleepy loss to Dartmouth on Saturday, the only highlight being Chairman Maodo breaking the 1,000 career points barrier.
This season increasingly feels like a mirror image of the 2012-13 campaign. Consider the similarities: A talented Lions team picked to finish third lost a star player before the season started (Noruwa Agho/Alex Rosenberg), played surprisingly well in nonconference including one huge game on ESPN (Villanova/Kentucky), saw freshmen start to blossom (Mullins & Lo/Castlin), and then struggled mightily in league play, including some heartbreaking losses (too many to count).
I don’t think this season will end as poorly for Columbia, and I think the future remains bright for next year. Kyle Smith has put together a talented recruiting class, including an honest-to-God point guard in C.J. Davis, and should be boosted by the returns of Rosenberg and Grant Mullins. But after this weekend, this season feels more and more like a lost cause. The Lions will probably need to finish 5-1, maybe 4-2 to finish in the upper division and get a CIT bid; with games left against Yale and Princeton on the road, that’s far easier said than done.
One thing is for sure, though: The Feb. 28 rematch against Harvard in Levien should be a doozy. It’ll be the final home game for the senior class, and the underground gym should be packed to the rafters with Levien faithful. The team will be dying to avenge last year’s game. Jeff Coby might have another chance to hit a shot to remember.
For now, the glory belongs to Siyani Chambers.