In case you missed the men’s basketball twitter’s excessive updates, Columbia Athletics will be honoring the 50th anniversary of the 1967-68 team at the game against Dartmouth on Friday. This team, one of the best in Columbia history, finished first in the Ivy League and made to the Sweet Sixteen. Sports Editor Abby Rubel reminds us of how awesome Columbia basketball can be. (A reminder we need in the wake of the team’s one-point loss to Cornell last week.)
Although Columbia finished the 1966-67 season with a mediocre 11-14 overall and 6-8 Ivy, the team was missing three players that would prove crucial to their later success: Dave Newmark at center, out with a wrist injury; and first-years Heyward Dotson and Jim McMillian. (At that time, freshmen played on a separate team.) Going into the 1967-68 season, the coach, Jack Rohan, seemed poised to lead the team to victory.
The Lions started off strong with four wins against Lehigh, CCNY, NYU, and Rutgers. Once they faced an Ivy opponent, however, they lost momentum. The Light Blue lost their first Ivy game of the season against Cornell 74-57 because, simply put, they played badly. Only McMillian and Newmark scored double-digit points, and Dotson only made seven. A Spectator reporter at the time wrote, “The Lions did not play well in defeat and as a result did not come close to victory.”
Columbia then dropped its next two games against Georgetown and Fordham, going to a 4-3 record as the Eastern College Athletics Conference’s Holiday Festival approached. The team would be facing some of the best teams around, including number two Louisville and St. John’s, which also went to the NCAA tournament that season.
The Lions’ first matchup was against West Virginia, a team they handily beat 98-71. Almost half of those points came from McMillian, who scored 40 points that game. Their next opponent, Louisville, was expected to cream the Light Blue. But the Lions refused to let expectations defeat them, triumphing over Louisville 74-67 thanks in large part to McMillian’s fantastic performance on both sides of the court and outstanding defensive play from both Dotson and forward Roger Walaszek. They went on to defeat St. John’s 60-55 to win the Holiday Festival ahead of the bulk of their Ivy schedule.
Despite their victories at the Holiday Festival, Columbia remained at 0-1 Ivy—a situation that quickly changed. Although Princeton was their main competition that season, the Lions defeated them 69-60 in their first matchup as part of a 12-game winning streak in the Ivy League. (This streak also included three games in which the Light Blue scored 100 points or more.) The Lions were neck and neck with the Tigers, tied at one loss each, until Dartmouth upset Princeton by two points in the third-to-last game of the season.
Columbia and Princeton were already scheduled to face off in the final game of the season. Thanks to Dartmouth, 12-1 Columbia was a full game ahead of 11-2 Princeton, and the game was tense. The Lions went into halftime trailing 28-17, but made up the deficit to tie the game with nine minutes remaining. Yet despite a valiant effort by McMillian, the Tigers extended their lead to five points with just over two minutes remaining, and after a missed jump shot from Columbia and two successful free throws from Princeton, the game was essentially over, leaving both teams with a 12-2 record and forcing a play-off game.
In the day between the loss to Princeton and the tiebreaker game that sent the Lions to the NCAA tournament, Columbia students held an impromptu rally at the sundial in support of the team. Two months later, Mark Rudd, president of Columbia’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, would make a speech at that same sundial that inspired students to occupy Hamilton.
The deciding game was held at St. John’s—neutral territory, although the bulk of the crowd was Columbia-affiliated. Unlike the previous game, Columbia went into halftime with an eight-point lead, then went on to outscore Princeton 13-7 in the beginning of the second half. The Lions shut down Princeton’s top scorers, forcing them into foul trouble, and in general commanded the court. They won 92-74, the most points scored against Princeton that season, and got a ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1951.
Once in the tournament, Columbia beat La Salle 83-69, then faced Davidson in the semifinals. The game was a nailbiter all the way through, with Columbia taking the lead in the second half but failing to clinch victory. The game was tied with two seconds left when a Davidson player fouled guard Bruce Metz, who then missed a free throw to send the game into overtime. But, according to the Spectator, “Columbia looked more like the team that lost three straight games in December than the team which won the Ivy League championship and built up a record of 22-4.” Unable to make free throws or shut down Davidson, the Lions still managed to keep it tight until the final minutes, when two decisive fouls gave Davidson the opportunity to take the lead—and take it they did, winning the game 61-59 and ending Columbia’s postseason run.
As the saying goes, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” But I for one wouldn’t mind if the basketball team repeated this little bit of history.
Photo via gocolumbialions.com