I have spoken, written, and typed many words about Columbia sporting events since I first stepped on campus and tonight I used a word to describe the experience that I had not used before: fun. Tonight’s environment in Levien felt more like an Ivy clincher than the championship game of a fourth-tier, mid-major only, buy-your-home-court-advantage tournament with teams selected in part by San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates. It was the first postseason tournament victory for the Ivy League in more than 40 years but more importantly than that, it was a happy ending to many eras.
When Maodo Lo came to Columbia’s campus, the only postseason tournament that he knew of was the big one, the one that Columbia failed to reach despite his record-setting four years on campus. Years later, he was the MVP of that tournament. Lo never found his shooting stroke, even airballing an open three-pointer against Irvine’s high 2-3 zone. Yet it was his catch-and-shoot three from the right wing that more or less iced the win for Columbia with a minute to go, long after his steal and layup on Columbia’s first full-court trap attempt of the night extended the Lions lead as part of a 10-0 second-half run. Alex Rosenberg told the story of how he told Kyle Smith that he was ready to commit to Columbia during his senior year of high school but got the cold shoulder from the Lions’ then-new coach. Like Lo, he had a poor shooting night, but Rosenberg was beaming after the game, praising the coaching staff for their work this season and the teammates who he helped take to a tournament title. Behind those two stars, it’s fitting that Columbia set records for most wins in a season, most home wins in a season, and yes, captured that postseason tournament championship. At the same time, it’s also fitting that the team reached such great heights this season but couldn’t quite get over the hump to represent the league on the biggest stage.
But tonight wasn’t just the final game for Maodo Lo and Alex Rosenberg. Isaac Cohen seemed petrified of the 7-foot-6 Mamadou N’diaye every time he drove past a defender or caught an entry pass at the high post. Despite that, Cohen was a facilitator, finishing the game with five assists and setting teammates up for more open shots that were not falling for the Lions on the night. In very Isaac Cohen fashion, he helped Columbia win this game more by what didn’t show up in the stat sheet. I know that’s clichéd beyond belief, but work with me here. I counted no fewer than three times that Cohen tipped a rebound out of the hands of N’diaye to keep a Columbia possession alive or to keep the towering junior from Senegal from a sure putback dunk next to the basket. Cohen had the net wrapped around his neck postgame, soaking in the moments and even sheepishly taking a picture with the “Isaac Have My Babies” sign the band brought. If Kyle Smith is to believed, Cohen might have the longest future in basketball out of anyone on the court for the Lions tonight, as he’s been telling anyone who will listen for four years now that Cohen is a future coach at any level he chooses.
The seminal moment from the game, the one that people will talk about for years as long as winning the CIT is the highest Columbia climbs on the court is a layup that Grant Mullins hit to ultimately give Columbia a one-point lead they would not relinquish for the remainder of the night. Mullins pushed the ball up court in transition and what happened next depends on who you ask, I know what I saw but to hear others talk about it as confetti was falling after the game means it will be the stuff of Columbia basketball lore (so I might need to amend that top 10 we did last year, Mike). Mullins drove the left baseline and was either “pushed,” “tackled” “clotheslined” “dragged to the floor” or “thrown like a rag doll” by Irvine’s 7-foot-2 backup center Ioannis Dimakopoulos. As he was falling, Mullins threw up a reverse layup that somehow went in, and Levien roared. Mullins sank the free throw and the Lions were on their way to victory. Like Lo, Mullins will be playing basketball somewhere next year as he was granted a fifth-year waiver due to his concussion problems the last two years. Wherever he goes, he has quite the story to tell, assuming thousands of Columbia fans don’t want to tell it for him.
And that leaves us with the last era that is coming to a close: the Kyle Smith era at Columbia. Now that we know Smith is off to San Francisco, we won’t know what his ultimate imprint on Columbia’s program has been probably for a few years. On one hand, he has left behind a team that will mostly be relying on underclassmen and the hopes of yet another talented recruiting class, leaving for greener pastures despite never finishing closer than three games out of the Ivy title race. On the other hand, he has finally delivered Columbia the elusive trophy for the empty case outside of his office, even if it’s not the one that neither he nor the players he brought in hoped they would be hoisting when they agreed to come to Morningside Heights.
As much as Smith has put Columbia on the map with regard to recruiting by bringing in players from state-winning high school teams across the country and international players who helped the team become what it is today, on a national level they’re still not on Harvard, Princeton, Yale or Penn’s recognition level when it comes to great Ivy hoops programs. The program is undoubtedly in a better place now than it was six years ago when Smith inherited Joe Jones’ players, but the next few years without Smith will test exactly how much this run and these last few years meant. I have always had trouble believing that Columbia would be a recruiting hotbed in the league until it represented itself on the national stage, despite its supposed advantage being in New York. For years, I’ve told people making an appearance in the NIT or a run in the CBI or CIT would be meaningless, since no one’s dream shooting hoops in their backyard is raising the CIT trophy above their head. I am sure the next couple of recruiting classes will prove that sentiment right or wrong. But thanks to this team, including “the best Columbia senior class of all time” per Alex Rosenberg, we finally get the chance to test that theory. Columbia finally won. The fans (awkwardly) stormed the court. The team cut down the nets, even if the players and coaches admitted they didn’t really know how. Most importantly: a major Columbia athletic program was finally fun. Students, alumni, and fans finally saw a winner, even if it was just the CIT. As the saying goes, you have to start somewhere. A team and a coach that marked the ending of an era tonight can truly believe they left behind the foundation of something that will surpass their greatest (and one of the program’s only meaningful) achievements.