The Columbia men’s basketball team’s rough start to the Ivy League season continued this weekend as the Lions lost two back-to-back games, squandering late leads in both games and raising questions about this team’s ability to execute down the stretch.
With these recent losses and a few surprising results throughout Ivy League play, the Lions now sit at last place in the conference as the team’s postseason prospects continue to dwindle. It is now head coach Jim Engles’ job to, as he put it, “find a way to come out on the other side of these games.”
The Lions (6-18, 1-7 Ivy) went into Friday night’s matchup in New Hampshire hopeful that they could snap their five-game losing streak against a Dartmouth team (9-14, 2-6 Ivy) that had gone winless in Ivy League play up until that point. Through the first 33 minutes of the game, the Light Blue looked poised to pull it off.
Behind an 18-point performance from senior point guard Mike Smith and 14 points from first-year guard Jack Forrest, the Lions controlled the early portion of the game. A layup from sophomore forward Ike Nweke gave the Light Blue a 7-point edge over the competition with nearly seven minutes left to play. However, this layup proved to be the Lions’ final basket of the contest, as they saw their lead slowly erode over the rest of the game until a Dartmouth layup tied the game with 50 seconds left to play.
After Smith missed a three-pointer for the Lions, the Big Green had one final possession to secure its first Ivy League win of the season. Dartmouth’s Wes Slajchert found his teammate Aaryn Rai open down low, whose jump hook found the bottom of the net with only 0.2 seconds left to go, despite junior forward Randy Brumant’s best efforts. After a full-court heave from Smith came up short, the Lions were left wondering how things went wrong so quickly. As for the game-winning shot, Engles blamed the team’s inability to execute the defensive game plan.
“We tried to execute a defensive rotation; it just didn’t happen and the kid laid the ball in,” Engles said. “It was something that was controllable and unfortunately, we just didn’t get the stop. So it stings.”
If Friday night’s game stung, the Lions’ matchup against Harvard (16-7, 5-3 Ivy) on Saturday certainly did not help ease the pain. Last year, Columbia headed into Lavietes Pavilion for what was one of the season’s most exciting games, as the two teams traded huge buckets all night long in a triple-overtime thriller that ended in a 98-96 heartbreaker for the Lions. Fans in search of another nail-biter like last year were not disappointed.
The two sides ended the half tied at 32, as Smith provided 19 of the Lions’ points in that half alone. Smith, who has said that he likes to get his teammates involved as much as possible early in games, said that putting the team on his back in the first half opened up opportunities for the rest of the Lions later in the game.
“I was just hitting shots and I was getting open and they were kind of pressuring everybody else and it was great for me to open it up for everybody else to score,” Smith said.
Despite Smith scoring only 4 points in the second half, the Lions were able to keep up with Harvard for most of it thanks to a few miraculous scoring runs. One such run encompassed the last 6 points of the second half, which forced the game into the first of two extra periods.
In the overtimes, Smith once again took over, scoring 15 of the Lions’ 20 points as part of his season-high 38 points overall. After the game, Engles was effusive in his praise for the team’s star guard.
“Mike really played at a different level today,” Engles said. “He had a look in his eye; you just knew he was going to be the best player on the floor. I thought he played a great game; it’s just unfortunate we weren’t able to finish it out after such a performance.”
However, in the final minutes of the game, with the score tied at 69, Columbia was set to inbound the ball with the chance to take the lead. However, Harvard came out pressing on defense for the first time all game, and the unexpected pressure forced Brumant to throw the ball straight out of bounds to give Harvard possession on its side of the court. The Crimson took advantage with guard Noah Kirkwood’s stepback three over senior guard Jake Killingsworth, which proved to be the dagger for the Lions.
After the second heartbreaking loss of the weekend, Engles—who is now in the midst of his fourth straight losing season—expressed his unhappiness with the way that this season has gone but was sure to stress that the Lions have it in them to right the ship.
“It’s frustrating for myself, it’s frustrating for my staff, and it’s obviously very frustrating for our kids because this is something that they do every day and it’s their identity. You know, you need to get rewarded every once in a while, and they need to understand that if they stay on the path of what we’re trying to do, that this will turn. It’s going to turn and it’s going to turn in a big way.”
The Light Blue will have another chance to turn things around this weekend at Levien Gymnasium when it takes on Brown at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 21 and Yale at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 22.