Mike Smith carries Lions as they adjust to new normal

Mike Smith put Columbia on his 5-foot-11 frame and carried it to a much needed 68-64 victory over Lehigh Saturday afternoon at Levien Gym. The senior leader had 30 points, six assists (with only two turnovers), and drew 10 Lehigh fouls, five in each half.

“I just kind of mixed it up, I shot the three, got to the rim, hit a couple of pull-ups,” Smith said. “I just tried to change up the game, if I can score at all three levels, it’s kind of hard to stop it.”

Said head coach Jim Engles: “That’s the best game Mike’s ever played for us. He scored a lot. He took a lot of shots, but it didn’t seem like he took a lot of shots. He distributed the ball when he had to and took over when he had to. He’s had a reputation as a scorer, but now he’s doing everything. He’s been really good defensively, he’s leading the league in assists. He doesn’t come out much, but he’s an elite level talent. As a senior, that’s the stuff we’re preaching, and he’s a great leader as well.”

It was a wonderful performance to watch, and Smith has been one of the Ivy League’s best (and most entertaining) players in his Columbia (now 3-5 this season) career. But if the Lions want to qualify for their first Ivy League Tournament this March, he is likely going to need more help than he’s gotten through Columbia’s first eight games.

Of course, before the season the Lions were dealt not one, but two blows. Senior Patrick Tapé, who played the best basketball of his career (including leading the Ivy in blocks) during conference play last year, apparently played a little too well, and decided on the eve of the season he was going to graduate a semester early and use his final season of eligibility in 2020-21 elsewhere. 

A month before, junior Gabe Stefanini was sidelined with injury. Stefanini averaged 13.8 points per game last season and was a second-team all-Ivy selection. Engles said after Saturday’s contest that he’s hoping that Stefanini will return for conference play in January, but it’s still too early in his rehab to tell. It was Smith who missed most of last season (including the whole Ivy schedule) with a torn meniscus, so Columbia fans must wonder what the basketball gods have against them. 

For now, Columbia continues to try to figure things out in Stefanini’s absence. And there are some things to like out of the Lions early-season, having played Wake Forest tough and led MAAC favorite Rider on a neutral court late (we won’t talk about the 25-0 Rider run that finished the game, however). Columbia is currently 135th nationally in defensive efficiency, an area that doomed it two years ago when the Lions had the most efficient offense in the Ivy behind the likes of Smith, Lukas Meisner, and Quinton Adlesh (last seen lighting up Harvard with USC this week), but were dead last (and 321st nationally) in defensive efficiency, as they finished 5-9 (Columbia has finished 5-9 in the Ivy in all three of Engles’s seasons on the Upper West Side).

Ike Nweke, Randy Brumant, and Jake Killingsworth have all started every game (along with Tai Bibbs) and have made it relatively difficult for opponents in the paint. Killingsworth hit three 3-pointers on Saturday and finished with six rebounds in 38 minutes of action, while Nweke and Brumant did an admirable job defensively. One player to watch is freshman Jack Forrest, whose claim to fame coming in was attending the same high school as Kobe Bryant. The 6-foot-5 guard scored 10 points off the bench and looks like he’ll be a big piece of what Columbia will be going forward.

“Obviously Mike played great, but I thought we had great contributions from our bigs that played great on the defensive end,” Engles said. “It was just one of those grind it out games, we’ve had a lot of close games, and we showed a lot of poise at the end. We’re going to need that.”

Smith scored 18 of his 30 points after halftime including the last seven of the game to finish one off his career-high (set last year before he was injured).  He’s shooting 46.5% percent from behind the arc (20-for-45) after hitting just 27.5% (19-of-69) from deep during his last healthy Ivy League campaign in 2017-18. 

“It’s ridiculously fun when you’re making shots,” Smith said. “It’s frustrating when you’re not, but it’s not all about scoring, I just have to do what the team needs and today it was making a few shots.”

Six different Lion players hit three-pointers (Smith, Killingsworth, Bibbs, Forrest, Maka Ellis, and Luke Bolster) Saturday, but the key may be in the paint, where Columbia was outscored 42-26 against Lehigh (Nweke had five points and Brumant two). The Lions are shooting just 45.0% on two-pointers (275th nationally), and are 351st in free throw rate in the early season (although playing Virginia surely didn’t help those numbers). 

Columbia’s defense was on full display in the first half when Lehigh opened up an early 17-8 lead but would score just 10 in the next 12 minutes as the Lions slowly battled back into the game. They needed it again down the stretch as Columbia did not make a field goal after the final media time out, but was able to hold on for the victory.

Given how late conference play begins in the Ivy League, the Lions still have six weeks of tweaking to do until they face off with Cornell in their annual home-and-home. They were picked sixth (ahead of just Cornell and Dartmouth) in the preseason Ivy poll, which was taken after Stefanini’s injury was known but before Tape said he would not play this season.

But with Smith and an improving supporting cast, Columbia may find a way to be in the Ivy League Tournament race yet.

“We have to keep rebounding, keep developing some of these guys, second and third scorers. Also, we hope to get Gabe Stefanini back,” Engles said. “He’s been rehabbing and hopefully we’ll get him back for the conference season.”

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