That familiar feeling was back again.
Like when Yale came back from 21 down in the second half against the Lions in 2012, the “Cannady Collapse” against Princeton last year, the entire 2013 Ivy run, and in half of the Lions’ home Ivy games already this year, a great first half was being wasted by a second-half meltdown. But like last Saturday night’s win over Harvard, the Lions steadied their nerve down the stretch and move solidly into third as their schedule turns from friendly confines to other, above-ground Ivy gyms.
Birthday boy Jeff Coby was one of many Lions players affected by a tight whistle last night, fouling out after just 11 minutes of playing time. The Lions were called for four fouls in the first four minutes of the first half, following that up by putting Brown in the double bonus with more than seven minutes to play in the second half. It was the steadying play of two freshmen and a resurgent senior that kept the Lions afloat early on.
Mike Smith was one of six Lions who were +10 or better in the first half, cashing in 13 points to lead the team. Fellow frosh Jake Killingsworth, stepping in for Rodney Hunter (pulled after two minutes for an unknown reason) scored nine of his own. He seems to be doing something good every time he steps onto the floor in an Ivy game and is admittedly much less timid than he was at the beginning of the season, saying, “earlier in the year I wasn’t being aggressive enough on offense … to the point where teams didn’t have to guard me.” His coach was much more effusive in his praise, saying of the freshman wing: “He’s a winner, he’s a kid that I’m so happy to have in our program. He just does winning things, he’s always in the right place at the right time.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper Columbia story on IHO without referencing the contributions of Conor Voss, who stepped in due to Coby, Lukas Meisner, and Nate Hickman being tied to the bench with two fouls apiece in the first half, grabbing four rebounds in his first five minutes of play while adding a layup, an assist, and a killer pick to free Smith for a midrange jumper. Up 19 at halftime, having forced 10 Brown turnovers, and after allowing just 11 points in the final 11 minutes of the first stanza, it seemed like an easy night for the soon to be 4-2 Lions.
But let’s get back to the lede. Columbia’s advantage stayed around double digits for most of the second half, with each Brown run answered by a big Lions play. A Voss screen set up another layup, Killingsworth’s and-one put Columbia up 14, Lukas Meisner (Dirk Jr.) somehow kept finding a clear path to the rim for dunks. Yet Brown, aided by an 8-for-17 three-point barrage and being able to draw an over-the-back foul on seemingly every possession, found their way back into the game. It was single digits at the 6:36 mark for the first time in 20 game minutes.
Then Brown was about to cut it to six and it happened: some poor soul tried to dunk on senior forward Luke Petrasek. Foreseeing the next rotation after a pass to the corner, Petrasek came across the lane to swat noted golfer’s brother Steven Spieth, Smith drew the eyes of four defenders in transition, and sophomore guard Quinton Adlesh hit a triple to put the Lions up 11, which should have iced the game. It was a five-point swing. “I don’t know why he tried to dunk on me, but I just contested it,” said the beaming senior postgame.
Brown was nothing if not resilient Saturday night, continuing to chip away at Columbia’s lead, getting within four with the ball before a Lions stop led to another layup. Then it was four again until Smith broke through a triple team in the full court press to notch one of his three second-half assists. And finally it was four again when Smith drove the lane with 40 seconds to go. His shot was blocked but Meisner was there to grab the loose ball, take two steps towards the basket and slam in two of his 11 points to put the game away.
Next up for Columbia in this oddly backloaded schedule, the road pairing formerly known as the Killer P’s. First the Lions try to end Penn’s season for all intents and purposes, going into the Palestra against a surely disheartened 0-5 Quakers squad. They’ll follow that up with a pit stop at Hoagie Haven or that surprisingly good Chinese place next to it and then take on still undefeated Princeton.
At 4-2 and two games clear of the Ivy’s fifth-place team, the rest of the Lions’ season sets up to be a tennis match where they got an early break. Beating the teams they’re supposed to beat is holding serve and should be enough to earn them a return trip to the Palestra in mid-March. Throw in a couple of breaks of serve (winning at Harvard or Yale, or splitting with Princeton) just makes the road easier. This being Columbia basketball, do not expect it to be easy. For once, however, the team is showing the tenacity to hold on when the going gets tough – at least when it’s on serve, that is.