Columbia basketball players appealing to the crowd after their win against Harvard. Mike Smith and Nate Hickman in the foreground.

We just want them to be happy

Columbia used to be ball hogs. It’s not that the Men’s Basketball players never passed to each other (they actually did a lot), but the players on the court didn’t like to come off and let the underclassmen have fun. This weekend, the Lions’ head coach made them share, and it paid dividends.

In the 2015-2016 season, the five players with the most minutes on the court for the Lions (the four seniors plus Petrasek) accounted for 69% of playing time. Former Head Coach Kyle Smith liked to depend on his stout senior class, and the statistics reflected it. While this allowed the strong players to heavily impact the games, it may have tired them out, contributing to some of the Lions’ late-game woes.

But this weekend, Head Coach Jim “Friedrich” Engels more equitably distributed his team’s resources by getting a lot of players on the court. Without a doubt, this decision was informed by the weekend’s marquee opponent: Harvard. One of the Crimson’s main strengths is their deep pool of impactful freshmen, which creates a deep rotation of players who stay fresh while playing very physically. The Lions would not be able to depend on Luke Petrasek, Mike Smith, and Nate Hickman carrying the game by themselves, something made evident by Petrasek’s cold streak in last week’s loss to Cornell.

The difference between last week and this week immediately enhanced the Lions. In Columbia’s two games against Cornell in January, the starters played an astonishing 75% of all available minutes. Against Dartmouth, they played only 55% of the time, making room for Quinton Adlesh and Jake Killingsworth to come off of the bench and create assists and three-point opportunities. Columbia made five player substitutions before Dartmouth made one, and they made use of hockey-style “line changes,” swapping out four players at once. This created team combinations where none of the team’s three highest scorers were on the court, an unthinkable proposition only a few games ago.

Columbia cruised through the Ivy League’s last place Big Green easily, rushing out to a 32-19 halftime lead. Petrasek found his stride again, scoring 18, Lukas Meisner had fun on the glass with nine rebounds. While it’s considered unwise to overlook your opponents one night in order to look forward to the next adversaries, Coach Engels’ idea to use the easy game against Dartmouth as a test run worked out perfectly. He also used the game to try out some new positions. Against Cornell, Senior Forward Jeff Coby made most of his substitutions with Meisner, a forward. But this weekend, Coby switched with Patrick Tape and Connor Voss, the team’s two Centers. The ability to rotate these three “bigs” would prove critical to contending for rebounds in the weekend’s main event.

Against Harvard, the frontcourt was the greatest foe. Seth Towns and Zena Edosomwan dominated jump balls around the basket, notching 21 rebounds between the two of them, but the whole team put on a clinic. In total, the Crimson secured 19 offensive rebounds, which were converted into 15 points, while also notching 10(!) blocks, led by Edosomwan’s six. But Columbia kept themselves fresh, especially by rotating the Centers, and didn’t let the game get away from them because of Edosomwan. Thankfully for the Lions, Harvard had immense trouble shooting the three. Harvard’s Corey Johnson burned Columbia for 21 points from long-range, but other than him, the Crimson went 3-25. Most damningly, Harvard’s Captain, Siyani Chambers, went 0-6 from beyond the arc – the exact same mark of failure Petrasek put up against Cornell a week ago.

The two teams went back and forth early, with neither team pulling ahead by more than four points for the first quarter of the game. But then a Lukas Meisner dunk on a precise assist from Mike Smith tied the game up at 20, and a pair of Quinton Adlesh threes made the score 26-20 with 6:50 to go in the first half. Against most odds, Columbia kept Harvard nearly silent for the rest of the half, and the Lions ended the first half with a 15 point lead (which would extend to 19 early in the second half).

But Harvard would not be kept down. Even though they got into intense foul trouble early in the half, tallying up six in the first five minutes, Corey Johnson came to the rescue with his long-range shooting, and Zena Edosomwan started to get the blocks rolling. At times, Columbia felt like prey, trying to outrun and outlast Harvard, a phenomenon that wasn’t helped by Columbia’s very poor free-throw shooting. In the final two minutes, the Lions nursed a two-point lead, one that hinged more on Harvard’s misses than Columbia’s blocks and steals. As the buzzer ticked down, Siyani Chambers had one chance to push the game to overtime with an in-motion three, but it came up short, and the Lions notched their first necessary win over a “top-of-the-table” Ivy squad.

At game’s end, it was not the players who were exhausted, but the crowd. The extra player substitution helped the Lions, but the drama of the game’s gradually diminishing lead put stress on the crowd’s throats. In a gesture I’ve rarely seen from Columbia, the team walked to in front of the fan section (populated significantly by fraternity members on Greek Night) to show their thanks. Columbia is now a top-4 Ivy team – they will have to prove next week that they deserve it. Otherwise, they will find their whole season looking like tonight’s second half, desperately hoping for the failure of supposedly superior groups.

Happy lions via Columbia University Athletics/Mike McLaughlin