Columbia began the 2014-15 as one of the “under the radar” teams, grouped in with Yale as a school that might be able to sneak up on three-time defending champ Harvard in the Ivy League. Then senior Alex Rosenberg went down with a season-ending injury (because of archaic Ivy redshirt rules, Rosenberg withdrew from school and should return next season), and that was the last anyone outside the Ancient Eight expected to hear of the Lions this season.
That still might be the case in the end, but – after a tough Opening Day loss to Stony Brook – Columbia made it four straight wins with an impressive 52-43 victory over preseason Patriot League (and defending champ) American Saturday afternoon at Levien Gym.
“I think we’re better than what the pundits would say,” Columbia coach Kyle Smith said. “It is about the team, and some people have written us off. But we study all sorts of leadership and we have a big Patriots fan on staff, so we always talk about, ‘Next Man Up’. We’d love to have Alex, but we’re getting there.”
The first man up Saturday was point guard Maodo Lo, who scored a game-high 20 (nine more than anyone else on either team) from his point guard position and added a game-high nine rebounds, four assists, and three steals. He had the two biggest plays down the stretch as well, as his three-pointer doubled Columbia’s lead with two minutes left, and his pass driving to the hoop gave Steve Frankoski a layup to put the Lions up 49-41 and virtually finish off the Eagles.
“This type of win shows how good we are and how tough we are,” Lo said. “If you have a strong defense and you bring that every day, you can get these types of wins where you don’t make a lot of shots, but you can still get a win.”
As expected, the game was played at a slow pace, American under Princeton graduate Mike Brennan used the Princeton offense to great effect in the Patriot last season (when they were picked ninth in preseason, but won the league) and hadn’t scored more than 64 points in any of its first six games this season, including a 40-37 near-upset of Temple. Meanwhile, Columbia runs a similar offense and hasn’t gotten above 57 yet this season, either. Yet the teams are still a combined 8-3 in the young campaign.
“We’ve had five in a row where we haven’t shot the ball well, so if you look at the glass half-empty, you can say, that’s what we are. I don’t think we’re that, but if we are that, that’s OK,” Smith said. “If we’re going to win big, though, we’re going to have to put the ball in the basket, but for now, that’s OK. We’re maybe a little bit behind offensively, but it seems like the rest of the country is, too. ”I’m very proud of our guys, we grinded it out. We had some looks that we couldn’t get to go down, but they do that to everybody, we’re not the exception there.”
Columbia finished just 4-of-21 from behind the arc and fell behind 9-2 early as American found a couple of trademark backdoor layups, but Columbia battled back to lead by the half, 24-21. The Eagles, already without senior Kyle Kager – who started every game last season – lost Kevin Panzer early in the first half to an ankle injury, forcing Brennan to call on little used Zach Elcano.
Panzer returned for the second half, and the Eagles immediately raced to the lead, but Lo – helped by quality minutes off the Columbia bench from Jeff Coby, Nate Hickman, and Noah Springwater, led the Lions back and they led for the final 12 minutes, although didn’t get their biggest advantage until the final seconds.
“This was very similar to a league game,” Noah Springwater said. “This was a tough game to play. Just like in our league, they were disciplined and well-coached and run their offense very well, so this was a confidence builder.”
Columbia’s defense made things difficult on American’s two best players, All-Patriot point guard Pee Wee Gardner and leading scorer John Schoof. Lo frustrated Gardner (3-of-11 from the field, two assists, two turnovers) for most of the evening and when Gardner did get loose late in the game, he missed consecutive shots near the basket that could have made the final few seconds interesting. Schoof led the Eagles with 11 points, but was continually hounded by Springwater and a steady diet of helpers.
“Pee Wee and Schoof always give us a good effort, but we need some guys to do more,” American coach Mike Brennan said. “We have to get production from somewhere else, and hopefully we’ll figure that out.”
Columbia – with previous wins over Wagner, Lehigh, FDU – isn’t exactly rocketing up the Strength of Schedule charts, but has a chance to run its win streak to six next week against a pair of struggling teams from the Patriot, Loyola (MD) and Bucknell, both at Levien. Things get considerably more difficult after that with dates with Kentucky and UConn, and a battle with Hofstra sandwiched in the middle.
Obviously Rosenberg will not return this season, but Smith hopes to get sophomore Luke Petrasek back soon, and junior Grant Mullins before Ivy League play starts in six weeks. There’s work to be done, but Columbia thinks – even without Rosenberg – it could be trouble down the road.
“This team has a lot of chemistry,” Springwater said. “We make it easy on each other. We really love playing for each other. It’s just been every day once you get your opportunity, you make the best of it, and that’s what everyone has to keep doing.”