At first, the game was sloppy. Then it became a rout.
Then came a furious comeback followed by something still more unexpected.
Saturday night’s Harvard-Columbia game at Levien Gym was setting up to be the stereotypical season-crushing loss we’ve seen from the Lions over and over again the past few seasons. With the Lions possessing the ball and a three-point lead with time running down, freshman point guard Mike Smith drove to the basket and missed. Jeff Coby saved the rebound to Luke Petrasek with nine seconds left, leading to him dribbling out the clock for a Lions victory heaving a 28-foot three-pointer because the shot clock was inexplicably showing two seconds. His miss was rebounded by Siyani Chambers, who put up a good look at a three-pointer to send the game to overtime. The predictable result would have been the three dropping through the net and a stunned Columbia team folding in overtime.
But if the 2016-17 Lions are anything so far, they’re a team that is masterful at bucking expectations.
While Saturday wasn’t a must-win for Columbia, it was certainly a yardstick for how the team stacks up with the rest of the league. It was the Lions’ first matchup with a team in the clear top three of the league and their first back-to-back of the season. They were facing “an excellent shooting team” against whom they had a decided rebounding disadvantage, per coach Jim Engles, but that did not dissuade them from running almost exclusively a 2-3 zone. In the first half, it was clearly to their benefit. Had Jake Killingsworth made his corner three at the first half buzzer, it would have just about been a perfect first 20 minutes for the Lions. They led by 15, had forced Harvard into 11 turnovers, and contained Siyani Chambers to the tune of no made field goals, two turnovers, and a -17 on floor rating. After a sloppy start which saw Engles put 11 players on the floor in the first six minutes trying to find the right lineup combination, the Lions closed the half on a 27-8 run. The ball was moving (to the tune of 12 assists on 16 made shots), Harvard couldn’t crack the zone, and a sweep was imminent.
Even though things quickly got away from a blowout mentality to the grind-it-out slowdown style which Engles hates to run, it was evident that Columbia was dominating off of its gameplan instead of a talent differential. The Lions hit Harvard for 10 backdoor cuts that led to a layup, shooting foul, or both. It was a number that stunned everyone but the players, because how does an Ivy team not know how to stop a backdoor cut? Per Quinton Adlesh: “[Engles] had emphasized (the backdoor cuts) going into the game, we knew that was going to be there for us,” Nate Hickman echoed him by saying that Engles wanted to play Harvard’s aggressiveness to chase Columbia off the three-point line against them, noting that it had been a point of emphasis in practice all week. It was a bread and butter play to bail the Lions out and help calm things down as Harvard gradually – then rapidly – mounted their comeback. Every time Harvard inched closer, there was a pass to the elbow, a pass to the baseline, followed by a layup or a foul like clockwork.
It’s easy to win games in college with a top recruiting class every year, but to find the edge off of scouting with players you did not recruit is the hallmark of something special.
The Lions have one more weekend playing in front of the “crazy environment” that is a packed, engaged Levien, as Jeff Coby put it. Even a split would maintain their tenuous hold on one of the coveted four playoff spots, but another sweep would put them in the driver’s seat before they’re thrown into the thicket of Ivy road weekends. Yale poses many of the same problems for the Lions’ zone that Harvard did: the Elis have four players shooting more than 37 percent from deep, and two players (Jordan Bruner and Sam Downey) who should give the Lions trouble grabbing long rebounds like Seth Towns and Zena Edosomwan did on Saturday. It would be easy to say this weekend is where the letdown comes, as it has for many Columbia seasons in the past, where a split or being swept at home leads to the Light Blue’s ultimate downfall. But with a week to gameplan, a raucous home crowd, and a team without the burden of expectations, even the most pessimistic Columbia sports enthusiasts are hopeful that things are changing for the better in Morningside Heights.
-If you believe you can help Columbia with its free throw shooting woes, Jim Engles is willing to pay you a consulting fee.
-Lukas “Dirk Jr.” Meisner’s stepover wasn’t quite Allen Iverson in the 2001 NBA Finals levels of disrespect, but it helped get the crowd into a frenzy.
-Nate Hickman was yelling at Petrasek as he was putting up his ill-fated three at the end of the game, not to admonish his shot selection, but “because I wanted the ball to take that shot.”
-As I was walking into the gym, a fan was complaining at the box office that Harvard was a “premium game,” thus making seats $25 instead of $15. He yelled to no one in particular, “It’s cheaper to go to a fucking Nets game” before buying four seats.