We’re counting down the top 10 moments in each Ivy school’s history as part of our Ivy League at 60 retrospective. We did Columbia next because in 1968, a little light blue went a long way.
Today we celebrate the best moment in Columbia’s basketball history by celebrating the farthest the team has gone in NCAA Tournament play, as well as one more big win for the school’s best squad of the modern era.
After defeating Princeton in the Ivy playoff, the men’s basketball team went down to the University of Maryland to face off with La Salle in the first round of the 23-team tournament. The Explorers posed a unique challenge for the Lions, as they were one of the few teams who played a 2-1-2 zone against the light blue. The Explorers also ran a run and gun style to an even further extreme than the Lions did. While not quite seven seconds or less, it was certainly a style of play the Lions were not used to defending that season outside of practice. And if the goal was to shut down Jim McMillian on offense, La Salle somewhat succeeded, limiting Columbia’s super sophomore to 17 points on 16 shots. Only six players scored for the Lions, two with two points each.
All of that seemed like a recipe for success for LaSalle were it not for the great play of Heyward Dotson.
Dotson’s 32 points paced the Lions from the start, as the team broke out to a quick 5-0 lead that soon turned to 19-9, before Columbia then opened up an 11-point halftime lead. Dotson also led the team in rebounds (10), and his 32 points are the most by any Columbia player in NCAA Tournament play. While McMillian was limited on offense, his defense was spectacular as usual. La Salle’s Larry Cannon, who averaged 19.5 points per game on the season to lead the Explorers, ran into McMillian’s perimeter brick wall. Cannon only scored 14 points on 17 shots, while McMillian came up with a few steals and blocks on La Salle’s best offensive player, while not picking up a personal foul during the game. Despite not racking up the buckets like Lions fans were already accustomed to, McMillian’s presence on the game was clearly felt.
Columbia’s double-digit lead for most of the game was whittled down to seven points midway through the first half when coach Jack Rohan called a timeout to impart some specific instructions. Per the Columbia Spectator, Rohan instructed his players to take “nothing but a layup” and due to the lack of a shot clock, the Lions could wait for their shot to salt the game away. Dotson took this mission upon himself single-handedly. Dotson helped run the clock down for three minutes before driving to the rim, getting fouled, and making a layup for an eventual three-point play. He would add another layup and free throw soon thereafter, an individual 6-0 run that pushed the Lions lead to 13. Columbia would never come close to relinquishing that lead.
The Lions were on to Raleigh, NC to play Davidson in the Sweet 16, with the winner to take on UNC.
The season would come to a disappointing end for the Lions, as they usually do. McMillian and Roger Walaszek had poor outings, and Bruce Metz missed the front end of a one-and-one with the game tied and two seconds to play before the Lions lost by two points in overtime to Davidson. Columbia would romp St. Bonaventure 95-75 in the East Regional Consolation Game, and the season concluded. The Lions would end up ranked No. 6 in the end-of-season national polls and as previously mentioned in this series, four Lions would be drafted into the NBA, including eventual NBA champion McMillian.
Despite the way the year came to a close, the effort against La Salle epitomized the 1967-68 Columbia team. The Lions forced their style of play on the opponent, played fast or slow when they needed to and relied on their stars to put away the competition. When the buzzer sounded in College Park, Columbia’s best team had its signature win. Hopefully someday a Lions team can make the school as proud, or at least advance as far in the NCAA Tournament, as this one.