We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. Columbia is next because the Chairman is in.
In news that should surprise no one, our countdown of the top 10 moments in Columbia basketball history begins with a loss. It was a game that all basketball fans had written off as a Lions loss from the second the fixture was announced, as their opponent was expected not just to be one of the best college basketball teams in 2014-15, but in the history of the sport. Coming off a national championship appearance in 2014, Kentucky was preseason No. 1 and would ultimately feature six NBA Draft picks, including four in the lottery and the number one overall pick in Karl-Anthony Towns. Since taking over for Joe Jones, Kyle Smith has made a habit of scheduling challenge games against major conference opponents like Michigan State, St. John’s and Villanova, so putting Kentucky on the slate in a game nationally televised on ESPN2 was not a surprise.
Columbia’s hot start in Rupp Arena, however, was stunning.
The Wildcats were already 9-0 and favored by 26 points over the Lions, who had won five of six heading into the showdown. Towns won the tip and then Columbia dominated the next four minutes of play. Kyle Castlin drew a foul and hit both free throws: 2-0 Columbia. A Maodo Lo steal led to an Isaac Cohen dunk: 4-0 Columbia. After a pair of defensive stops, Chris McComber nailed a three pointer: 7-0 Columbia. After Kentucky crossed halfcourt, John Calipari called a timeout to try and stop the bleeding as cheers from the Columbia bench could be heard over the silence emanating from the Rupp Arena crowd.
Following a four-man substitution, Kentucky immediately turned the ball over again. Yet another Maodo Lo steal led to a coast-to-coast layup: 9-0 Columbia. After a minute and a half of trading missed jumpers with Kentucky, the Lions scored again as Kyle Castlin hit a mid-range jumper: 11-0 Columbia. A team that would begin the season 38-0 now trailed an Ivy League school by double digits. It would end up being tied for the largest deficit the Wildcats faced all season. Columbia would eventually push the lead to 14-3 and take a 25-23 lead into the break, one of only a few times in 39 games that Kentucky faced such a deficit.
Yes, Kentucky went on to win the game, 56-46. No, the great start did not inspire Columbia to great performances in nonconference play or during the Ivy season. And yes, one of the best moments in Columbia’s history is a defeat, and as a small spoiler, it’s not the only one.
All of that being said, the team did live up to Kyle Smith’s edict to never back down from challenges, and combined with the near-victory in East Lansing the previous year, it sent a message to teams scheduling Columbia that they will truly be getting their money’s worth instead of just buying a home victory. It was an incredible effort that much more talented teams could not match (looking at you, UCLA). Oh yeah, it was pretty damn cool for Columbia students, alumni, fans and people who just generally do not like Kentucky basketball to see this scoreline, even if it was fleeting.