NEW YORK – Back in the day, the MSG Holiday Festival was a premier two day four team bracketed event that featured several of the nation’s top teams. In addition to the classic 1964 Festival featuring Princeton (Bill Bradley), Michigan (Cazzie Russell), Syracuse (Dave Bing) and St. John’s (Coach Joe Lapchick), there were years like 1995, when Penn won the title and used it as a stepping stone to the AP Top 25; 1997, when Princeton was victorious on its way to a top 10 AP ranking; and 2009, when Cornell took the title on its way to a Sweet 16 appearance. Over the last few years, the event has morphed into a one day double-header featuring the Johnnies and three other local mid-majors. This year, the “worlds most famous arena” was home to a quarter of the Ancient Eight as Columbia took the subway and Princeton came up the NJ Turnpike to take part in the annual pre-Christmas tradition.
Before the Garden was cleaned up for the Knicks nightcap versus the Hornets, the Lions held off Iona and the Tigers succumbed to the Red Storm. While neither team was perfect and the results were spit, both teams had solid efforts and hope to use the day as a motivator as the Ivy schedule quickly approaches.
Columbia 74 vs Iona 71
In their last time out, the Lions defeated Bryant 90-68 at Levien Gymnasium. Despite winning their first Division 1 victory of the season on Friday night, Columbia’s Mike Smith went down late in the first half and missed the rest of the game. On Sunday morning, the team’s star guard could be seen sitting on the bench with crutches.
Even without knowing of Smith’s absence, KenPom predicted the #250 Lions bowing to the #197 Gaels by three on the neutral Garden floor. If holding true, this would be another bitter result for a Lions team that has already lost four games by six points or less in the first month of the season.
Columbia started out strong, opening up a 9-0 lead over Iona in the first three minutes and held the same size advantage with five minutes left in the first half. The Gales closed out the stanza on a 12-2 to head into the locker room down only 32-30. Without Smith’s ability to penetrate, the Lions only shot 35 percent from two, but they hit 6 threes at 38 percent. For a team that entered the game in the bottom twenty nationally in three point defense, they held Iona to three three pointers at 27 percent. Unfortunately for Columbia, the Gales shot 60 percent from around the rim.
Five minutes into the second half, a Jake Killingsworth three gave Columbia a 7 point lead. The Gales again bounced back and the game was tied at 61 with 3:43 left in regulation. Where the Lions have made a habit of losing these close games, they would not be denied this time. Patrick Tape and Gabe Stefanini scored two baskets and seven of eight free throws, while the defense forced three turnovers in the last two minutes to seal the victory.
Killingsworth led the way for Columbia, going 4 for 8 from downtown to lead the team with 14 points. He also added a career high 7 rebounds. Tape added 13 points, including hitting four of his last five shots, and a team-high 8 boards. First year guard Maka Ellis from Las Vegas, who may not have known the difference between MSG and the MGM Grand according to his coach, had his best game for the Lions. Not only did he lead the team in first half scoring with 8 points, netting 13 over 25 minutes, but he earned KenPom MVP honors.
As a team, the Light Blue & White hit 10 threes at 35 percent, while holding the Gales to 28 percent shooting from beyond the arc (the first time holding a Division 1 opponent under 30 percent on the year). In the post game press conference, Killingsworth attributed the perimeter defense on shutting down Iona’s second and third rotations. On offense, they did a solid job with ball movement (19 assists on 26 made baskets), mid-range jumpers and three pointers. They did have trouble in the interior, where they missed Smith’s dribble penetration, as well as a number of bunnies.
“Our record (3-6) does not truly reflect it, but we’re actually a couple of bounces from being 6 and 3” said coach Jim Engles. “It’s a good step for us, because when you see the zeros (on the scoreboard) and you have more points than the other team, there’s a smile on everybody’s face.” The Lions have their last day of classes on Monday and one more pre-Finals game at Boston College on Wednesday. After that, they will be off the court for 10 days before getting back to their non-conference schedule at Rutgers.
St. John’s 89 vs Princeton 74
While most of the 10,000+ MSG crowd were cheering for their Johnnies, the smaller Princeton contingent were on their feet thanks to the pregame announcement that Jaelin Llewellyn would be seeing his first action of the season. The Tigers, who finally got their desired starting lineup on the court, hung tough against their Big East foe, but could not keep up with the more athletic Red Storm.
With the score knotted at 22, eleven minutes into the first half, St. John’s went on a 10-2 run over the next five minutes. The Orange & Black battled back to tie the game at 38 with just over 2 minutes to go. An old fashioned three point play by E. J. Figueroa gave the Red Storm the 41-38 lead at the intermission. Devin Cannady led the way with 15 points, hitting five three pointers from NBA range (earning post game praise from St. John’s Hall of Fame coach Chris Mullins). The team struggled from the interior, hitting only four buckets, but hit 9 threes at 53 percent. Defensively, they held the Red Storm to only one offensive rebound, but allowed them to shoot 44 percent from two and 53 percent from two.
After Princeton cut the lead to one on its first possession of the second half, St. John’s methodically built up an 19 point lead over the next eleven minutes, exploiting any defensive set the Tigers employed. The Red Storm made the mistake of taking their foot off the gas, letting Princeton go on a 18-5 run and cutting the score to 80-74 with just under four minutes remaining. Coming out of the last medial timeout, the Tigers went 0 for 5 the rest of the way as the Johnnies closed the contest on a 9-0 run.
Cannady led the Tigers with 18 points, but only went 1-6 in the second half. Llewellyn did not disappoint the Princeton faithful, adding 17 points and 4 assists in 36 minutes of action. Whether shooting from downtown, driving to the lane against the rugged St. John’s front court or dishing the rock, the four star point guard made the game look easy. Richmond Aririguzoh had another solid effort, putting up 14 points and a team-high 6 rebounds, and Jose Morales scored 13 points. “I love Richmond. He’s consistently good and we need that,” said coach Mitch Henderson, when asked to look at the positives in this week’s losses to St. Joseph’s and St. John’s. “I love the way that he and Jose are playing.”
On the other end of the spectrum, two time All-Ivy Myles Stephens, who entered the game averaging 14.9 points, had his second straight 6 point (3-8) performance and was no match for Red Storm on the defensive end.
The Princeton defense was the big problem on the afternoon. On the boards, the Tigers had 22 defensive rebounds to one St. John’s offensive board by the under eight timeout. However, the Red Storm got 8 offensive boards to Princeton’s 4 defensive boards over the last 7:32. The biggest problem was turnovers, where the Tigers committed 20 with 13 coming from their back court of Cannady (5), Llewellyn (4) and Morales (4). “We talk all the time about taking care of the ball and getting back in transition. We did not do either one of these things very well.”, said the coach. “It starts on the offensive end. You can’t give people easy baskets.”
The Orange & Black find themselves at 4-3 with four more non-conference games before the league opener against Penn on January 5th. The coach is well aware that there is limited time to tighten the defense. “I love my team. I think they can be really good, but time’s ticking. We’ve got to start getting good right now.” They can start that process next Saturday when they face the Iona Gaels at the Hoophall Boardwalk Classic at Atlantic City.