With nine seconds left, Kyle Castlin was suddenly all by himself.
Isaac Cohen had flung a floating touch pass, a perfectly weighted through ball that would make the likes of Mesut Ozil proud, over the pressing defense of the desperate Yale Bulldogs. Castlin, breaking away from his man, hauled in the pass in stride, nothing but an empty basket ahead of him.
The freshman rose up and put down a two-handed slam, sending a disappointed crowd of 1,900 out into snowy New Haven. The small clique of Lions fans behind the bench went nuts as Kyle Smith let out a celebratory fist pump, Castlin’s dunk providing the exclamation point on a weekend to remember for Columbia.
Coming off their worst weekend of the season — a heartbreaking loss to Harvard followed by a listless defeat at Dartmouth — the Lions notched their first road weekend sweep since 2008, pairing a blowout of Brown on Friday with a scrappy defensive performance to topple league-leaders Yale, knocking the Elis one game off the Ivy pace.
There’s no better place to start than with Columbia’s star guard, Maodo Lo. The Chairman pout up a career performance against Brown on Friday night, piling up 24 points on 10-for-11 shooting in the first half alone. His final line on the evening: 35 points, five assists, five boards and a crazy four steals. Lo hounded sophomore Tavon Blackmon all night on defense; on the other end of the court, Lo got everything he wanted to fall. The junior’s dominance continued the next night against much tougher opposition in Yale, picking up a game-high 18 points.
These two games showed some clear signs of Lo’s continued growth as a player. He was much more aggressive off the dribble, not hesitating to blow past his man to get the cup if he got a favorable matchup. No Ivy guard can match Lo’s blazing quickness, and when combined with his dribbling skills he is a nightmare to defend. (Makai Mason, the Yale freshman, drew Lo when Armani Cotton and Javier Duren were in foul trouble. To put it gently, the matchup did not go well for Mason.) Lo has also become much more adept at defeating defenses designed to stop him. Early in Ivy season, Lo really struggled to beat double-teams; he’s now able to split them and drive or fire a pass to his perimeter shooters. It’s been a slow process following the sudden loss of Alex Rosenberg, but the Chairman is firmly in control of this team. He’s a sure thing to earn first-team All-Ivy honors.
The frontcourt has struggled at times this season, but that group came up huge in both games. Against Brown, Jeff Coby and Luke Petrasek added plenty of scoring (13 and nine points, respectively) to go with five total blocks. Both sophomores added highlight-reel plays, with Coby receiving a beautiful dish from Steve Frankoski for a layup and Petrasek pump-faking a three and blowing past Maia for a monster slam dunk.
The Yale game was the Cory Osetkowski show. The big senior has had an up-and-down season, but his size and ball skills were instrumental in keeping Justin Sears from taking over the game. On offense, moving Osetkowski out to the perimeter freed up space inside for Lo’s drive, while the senior used his size on the other end of the court to keep Sears out of his preferred post positions. Osetkowski also added 10 points, including a big 6-for-6 on free throws. Chris McComber also did some of the heavy duty on Sears, and Petrasek made up for a largely quiet game with a tremendous late game sequence: a huge block followed by a dagger three-ball with just three minutes left.
Kyle Castlin was quiet on Friday, but he came up in big moments on Saturday night. Besides the dunk mentioned at the beginning, he scored a huge bucket as the clock ticked under a minute to go. With the shot clock winding down, the freshman blasted past his man and drove straight to the rim for the huge bucket. Castlin again and again proved his cool under fire and his outstanding body control.
For the first time all season, Castlin was joined by another freshman in making an impact.
Steve Frankoski earned his first two starts of the year and brought his usual buzzing game against Brown. He already had six points against Yale when, after just three minutes, he suffered an ankle injury and was forced to leave the game. Foul trouble with Kendall Jackson forced Smith to bring in little-used rookie Nate Hickman, who gave the Lions a big 14 minutes. Hickman knocked down a three-pointer — his first career Ivy bucket — as part of a 12-0 spurt for Columbia in the first half.
Finally, Kyle Smith should get a lot of credit for this big weekend. After last week’s disappointment, the Lions could have folded with another tough road trip. Instead, the Lions came out focused against an inferior opponent in Brown and ran them out of the Pizzitola Center. Against Yale, his charges finally were able to neutralize Justin Sears in a big game, and they maintained their composure down the stretch despite a scoreless drought of nearly ten minutes. It was a well-deserved celebration from Smith after the game.
Next up for the Lions is their last home weekend of the regular season, a season they’re now looking to end on a high note. The Light Blue are back in the upper division and are just a half-game behind Princeton; more importantly, it’s a chance for revenge against Harvard for that infamous Valentine’s Day game in last year’s Levien matchup. That Saturday, the Lions’ senior night, should see another overflow crowd at the corner of 120th and Broadway — one last chance for the Morningside faithful to cheer on their resilient squad.