Columbia women outlast Cornell, 57-46, for best start to Ivy play in program history

After running out to a 24-point lead over the first 7:30 of the game, the Columbia women surprisingly found themselves in a battle with Cornell on Thursday night.  In a typically intense physical battle between the Empire State rivals, the Lions used the offense of Kitty Henderson and the rebounding of Kaitlyn Davis to come away with a 57-46 victory at Levien Gymnasium.

With the win, the Light Blue are 3-0 in league play (12-0 overall) for the first time in program history and remain tied with Princeton for first place.  For the Red, the defeat was their first of the year when holding an opponent to 60 points or less and they are now 1-3 in the conference (6-9 overall).

Using their transition offense, the Lions hit four of their first five baskets, including a perfect 3-for-3 from downtown, to make it 11-0 in the first three minutes. Columbia would score five more points before Ania McNicholas hit one of two free throws to get Cornell on the board at the 4:47 mark.

Columbia then went on a 9-0 run with a trio of different three-point plays. Hannah Pratt made a deep shot, Davis got an old-fashioned three off a fastbreak layup and Abbey Hsu made three free throws after being fouled from beyond the arc.  The foul on Hsu, which made the score 25-1, was the third of the game for Theresa Grace Mbanefo, sending the Big Red’s leading scorer and rebounder to the bench for the remainder of the half.

With Mbanefo off the court and Olivia Snyder lost to an injury sustained against Yale on Saturday, things looked lost for Cornell.  However, Mia Beam and Shannon Mulroy each hit a triple in the last 100 seconds to spark a 6-1 run and end the quarter with Columbia leading 26-7.

The Red continued to turn the tables on the Lions, turning it into more of a half-court game and scoring the first 12 points of the quarter to cut the deficit to seven with 4:30 remaining. Carly Rivera’s triple was Columbia’s first basket of the frame and extended the lead to 10, but Cornell put up the last five points to make it a 29-24 game at the half.

In a topsy-turvy first half, Columbia shot 57% from two (4-for-7) and 50% from three (4-for-8) in the first quarter but only made 10% from three (1-for-10) and a goose egg (0-for-5) from inside the arc in the second. On the other hand, Cornell went scoreless from two (0-for-6) and 33% from three (2-for-6) in the first 10 minutes, while making 50% (6-for-12) of their two pointers and going 0-for-3 from beyond the arc.

The second half was played at Cornell’s style, becoming a defensive and physical battle with the referees getting a lot of chances to use their whistles.

McNicholas hit a quick three to make it 29-27, but Henderson scored the next nine points, including a perfect 4-for-4 from the line, to stretch the Lions lead to 11 with just under eight minutes to go in the quarter.

It was Cornell’s turn to make a run.  The Red tallied the next seven points with five of them coming from the charity stripe to cut the deficit to four, 38-34.

With Columbia still up four with just over a minute remaining in the frame, Henderson nailed a three to start a quick 6-0 run and make it a 10-point game entering the fourth quarter.

After sending the Lions to the free throw line 16 times in the quarter, Mbanefo had four fouls, while McNicholas and Samantha Will had three each for the Red.  On the opposite side, Sienna Durr was the only Lion in foul trouble with three.

Pratt opened the fourth with a layup to put Columbia up 12, but the Lions would go six minutes until their next bucket.  Unfortunately, the Red were no more accurate, only getting a three from Will and two free throws from Mbanefo and Mulroy to make it a 51-44 game with just over four minutes remaining.

The Lions advantage was still seven with just over a minute to go, when Durr hit a driving Davis from the left baseline for a layup that put the game away for Columbia.

Both teams struggled on offense with Columbia shooting 29% (16-for-55) from the field and 60% (18-for-30) from the charity stripe, while Cornell hit only 28% (14-for-50) of its shots and 57% (13-for-23) of its free throws.  Their stars didn’t fare any better with Hsu, the league’s second-leading scorer, only tallying nine points on 14% shooting and Mbanefo totaling three points on 25% shooting in her limited 15 minutes of action.

Fortunately for the Light Blue, Henderson made her shots and led all players with 18 points on 63% shooting, including 11 points in the decisive third quarter.  McNicholas and Will led the Red with 11 points each with McNicholas adding 10 rebounds for her first ever double-double.

In a game where the defense held court, the Lions secured the victory on the boards with a +16 (50-34) and +19% advantage.  Davis led the way for the victors with a career-high 18 rebounds (five offensive).

Although coming away with the all-important win, Columbia coach Megan Griffith knows that her team has to be more consistent if it wants to claim the league title.

“We are one of the best teams in our league. There’s no doubt about that. Everybody knows that. We know that.  It’s something we’ve all come to grips with,” Griffith told Columbia Athletics. “So we’ve got to start playing like that through four quarters. We’re still trying to figure a lot of things out.”

The Lions will get two more chances to build on their performance over the next few days as they head up to Brown on Saturday afternoon and then return home for a big matchup against Penn on Wednesday, in a rescheduling of the postponed Jan. 8 contest.  Dayna Smith will lead her gritty Big Red up I-95 to face Harvard on Saturday, hoping to slow down a high-flying Crimson team that put up 87 shots, including 38 three-pointers, in last weekend’s 72-64 loss to these same Lions.