Kyle Smith and Alex Rosenberg walked down the halls of Levien Lobby smiling and laughing. The Lions had just dispatched of American 61-47, and their mood was lighthearted following the win.
“That’s two in a row,” Smith said to his junior forward. “Keep it up.”
For the second straight game, Columbia had won. And for the second straight game, they didn’t let a sizeable second half lead fall into the hands of its opponents.
In games against Manhattan and Michigan State early this season, the Lions suffered losses after controlling the lead down the stretch of the game. It was also an issue that plagued Columbia last season as it dropped eight conference games by six points or fewer.
So when the Lions’ 13-point lead was cut to six with just over seven minutes to play, Levien Gym grew restless awaiting what felt like another inevitable second-stanza collapse. But instead, Columbia regained momentum and won handedly.
“It’s an area that we’ve been really working at,” Smith said. “Work at it in practice, learning how to close out games, how to handle situations. It’s nice to see it come to fruition. I think it’s a sign of our maturity.”
With the Eagles down just 48-40 with 3:50 remaining, Maodo Lo scored seven straight Columbia points in the span of 1:20 to put the game out of reach at 55-42. The run was capped off on a three pointer from dead center behind the arc. It sent the Levien crowd into a raucous cheer as the sophomore stood cold-faced and unfazed.
“It’s all about how comfortable you are and how confident you are,” Lo said. “If you have a certain comfort level then you just going to make those kinds of shots. And you have the confidence to take them as well.”
Smith credited his defense for getting stops as a source of momentum for the Lions. He noted that his team guarded the perimeter well and limited a normally good three-point shooting team to 3-12 from long range.
The Columbia head coach also said that getting big rebounds played a role, specifically noting how Rosenberg’s offensive board with 8:50 left in the game and the Lions up nine, set the tone for the rest of the game. Rosenberg was fouled coming down with the rebound. He missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but Smith said that moment was a game changer.
“Those plays,” Smith said. “Those little hustle plays, those things when you’re playing with aggression, and not afraid to fail. We’re starting to come on that way.”
Rosenberg finished with 11, all in the first half. He was the third leading scorer, behind Lo, who had 13, and Luke Petrasek who had a career-high 19 points, 13 of which came in the first half.
Rosenberg said that staying in the structure of the offense helped boost him and his teammates.
“I was doing it within the offense,” Rosenberg said. “I wasn’t trying to go on a tangent on my own. It looks like so far when we stay with our offense, we play really well, we get easy shots and it just makes it easier.”
That was the consensus for Rosenberg and his coach as they celebrated Columbia’s third win in its last four games. For a team that was picked to finish in the Ivy League cellar, the Lions feel like they’re only just getting settled into what could be a successful season.
“Your roles start to identify themselves,” Smith said. “At some point they can’t look to the bench, I can’t tell them what to do every time. That’s why we practice. If you give them a framework, then they’ll get comfortable in it.”
Sam Blum is a writer for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @DaBlumSta