With 90 seconds left in Saturday night’s Columbia vs. Princeton game, I was sure I was going to write about how Maodo Lo took over the game and held off a charging Princeton squad, or how the Lions were able to dominate the Tigers defensively even with their small lineups. With two minutes left in overtime, I was sure I was going to write about how even after blowing a late lead in typical Columbia fashion, Grant Mullins willed his fellow seniors to victory with his performance on both ends of the floor in overtime. Safe to say those articles will be written as soon as I put on one of my Bills Super Bowl Champion t-shirts while listening to Detox. Instead, this is an article about coming back after the buzzer sounds.
Harvard’s Ivy dynasty began with a crushing loss on their archrival’s floor. Dougie Davis’ buzzer beater at Payne Whitney in the 2011 playoff kept Harvard from the NCAA Tournament, but the Crimson were able to rebound from that and take the league title the next year, and the next year, and well you get it from there. Instead of letting that loss haunt them in every big game going forward, it fueled a team that almost became unbeatable in close games over the course of the next four years. Even more crushing than that Harvard defeat was the way Yale lost its grip on the title over two excruciating games last season, a buzzer-beaten loss to Dartmouth and then another tantalizingly close loss in the Palestra playoff against Harvard. Of course, Yale has turned it around and is undefeated in league play through the midway point of Ivy play. What does this all have to do with Saturday night? Columbia has been suffering those types of losses each year in the Kyle Smith era and it is clear that not one thing has changed.
It’s easy to rattle off in a dispassionate tone the games Columbia has blown inexplicably over the last five years. The 21-point lead against Yale in 2012, the final-minute collapse at Harvard in 2013 and a lost late lead at Northwestern earlier this season are just a few of the countless close losses Columbia’s suffered through the Smith era. They’ve lost games where they’ve run the offense through one player and with a balanced approach. They’ve collapsed when led by seniors and by underclassmen. All-Ivy players miss the front end of one-and-ones, freshmen turn the ball over on inbounds passes, all footnotes in history to another school’s Greatest Games collection.
The window for Columbia to compete for an Ivy title was extremely small. With Siyani Chambers and Hans Brase unfortunately set to miss the season but return next year, it appeared that things were parting for a Columbia/Yale showdown to claim the league’s 2016 NCAA berth, a one-year reprieve until Harvard’s top 10 recruiting class comes to Cambridge in the fall (hi Michael James!). Columbia is losing four seniors to graduation this summer and while the younger players have shown spurts of competence, there is nothing to suggest they are ready to compete for a league title in 2016-17.
Yale is holding up its end of the bargain, and the way the Elis are playing, they certainly seem capable of holding serve until the season’s final game at Levien. But even Columbia’s wins have been squeakers against teams it should be dominating. Against a Princeton team they held in check for 39 minutes on Saturday night, everything came undone in a flash. Then it happened again four game minutes later. It would be tragic if it weren’t so predictable.
Columbia has to win out and have Yale drop a game before Sat., March 5 just to make a playoff. Along the way, they’ll have to beat Princeton at Jadwin, a place the Lions have won twice in my 24 years on this planet. They’ll also have to win at the Palestra, a gym that has become a house of horrors for the Lions at times over the last few years, regardless of how poor Penn’s season might be going. They will have to win home games against teams who have already seen them this year and will be looking to drive the dagger into an Ivy campaign that’s currently on life support. We knew coming into this season that it might be Columbia’s last true shot at an Ivy title for some time. Because of a loss that brings back memories of every time Columbia could have, should have, or basically did win a game before coughing it up, it looks like that title shot has drifted wide to the right.