The beauty of the Ivy League 14-game tournament is that every game matters, there is no getting them back in March when it matters or hoping to peak at the right time as the season winds down.
For Yale, however, it is also its curse. A home loss to Harvard left it with precious little margin for error. The Bulldogs were able to survive a shaky offensive night Friday against inexperienced Cornell, but it couldn’t 24 hours later against a veteran, disciplined Columbia team, who it seemed was bound to play spoiler against someone before the season was complete.
The Lions led by as many as 16 early in the second half and were happy to play party crasher, knocking off Yale 56-50 to sweep an Ivy road weekend (and win at Yale) for the first time in six years at Lee Amphitheater.
“I think we earned it, it wasn’t by happenstance,” Columbia coach Kyle Smith said. “Those guys are being rewarded for staying with it. We hit a lull where we weren’t playing great, and it takes time. You don’t just make one change and everything is great. It involves hard work and discipline about doing what you’re doing. It’s always keep it simple, stupid.”
It was an incredibly frustrating night for Yale (19-8, 8-2), who just never got going offensively. As Cornell did, Columbia set out to shut off Justin Sears, and had a little more size in 6’11” senior Cory Osetkowski to do it. And for the second straight night – at home – the Bulldogs could not find another option. Jack Montague finished the weekend 4-20 from the field, 2-10 Saturday, while although Javier Duren led the Bulldogs with 13 points, he was just 5-13 from the field, 1-7 from beyond the arc. A Yale team that entered this week in the top 100 nationally in offensive efficiency posted just a 39.4 eFG% and were a brutal 7-16 at the free throw line.
“I’m not concerned about our offense,” a frustrated Yale coach James Jones said. “It’s not like this has gone on through the course of the entire season. We had a bad shooting weekend. Everybody does. Like I said, we were good enough to win with it last night. Were you worried about it last night? So you lose a game and start to think about it. Do I think Jack is going to go 2-8 next game or Javier is going to go 1-7 next game? I don’t think so. I don’t think we’re going to shoot 43% at the free throw line. It’s almost impossible. I think I can drop kick 43% from the line or knock it off my head and do it. We’re still in control of our own destiny, we have four games left, hopefully we get to 12-2 and let sleeping dogs lay where they may.”
Unfortunately, the 14-game tournament does not allow for those bad weekends that everybody has, not while Harvard is posting a come-from-behind victory against Princeton to move a game up in its quest for its fourth straight NCAA Tournament, a place Yale hasn’t visited since 1962.
Yale’s only lead of the night came on the game’s first possession when Armani Cotton scored to make it 2-0. Yale had a 10-0 run to tie the game at 14-14 midway through the first half which featured three-pointers from Montague and Makai Mason, but that fluidity was just a tease, gone as soon as it arrived. By halftime, Columbia led 30-22 and when Kyle Castlin drove and scored with 15:41 left, the Lions (13-11, 5-5) led 42-26 and looked like they might be able to blow Yale out.
But they would get only one field goal in the next 13 minutes as their lead slowly, and I mean leisurely disappeared. Yale’s 16-2 “run” to cut the lead to 44-41 took 12 minutes. Finally, with 3:10 left, Luke Petrasek found himself open in the left corner and buried the three for what was undoubtedly the biggest shot of the evening, an uppercut that Yale could not get up from.
“Some guys stepped up at the end, Luke hit a big shot, I think personally that was huge,” Maodo Lo, who was “held” to 18 points after torching Brown for 35 on Friday, said. “We got some rebounds and Kyle (Castlin) had a layup to clinch it.”
Said Smith: “Their pressure was getting to us a little bit. We said someone had to step up and make a shot. I went with the ‘due theory.’ I said, ‘We’re due.’ We hadn’t hit a shot in forever. I don’t believe in that theory, by the way, being a Houston Astros fan my whole life. But Luke stepped up, Isaac (Cohen) penetrated and made a big-time pass, and I threw Luke in there because we were struggling and we spread them out and Luke made a big shot.”
Ironically, Columbia has been a fairly poor defensive team for much of the season (218th in KenPom before Saturday), and lost Steve Frankoski – who had six points already at the time – just three minutes into the game when he ran into a Cotton screen, injured his ankle, and did not return. But that set the stage for 32 minutes from Cohen and 24 from Chris McComber, neither of whom put up good offensive numbers (Cohen did have nine rebounds), but were pests all night on the defensive end. Combined with Lo, the athletic Kyle Castlin, and Osetkowski, and they had an answer for everything Yale tried, even on the boards, where the Lions allowed Yale just 21.1% offensive rebounding, and got 29.0% at the other end.
“We made some changes in our lineup. We just got back to basics,” Columbia coach Kyle Smith said. “Chris (McComber) makes us gritty defensively. He’s kind of like our (Matt) Townsend, I know how much he means to Yale. He’s just a hard playing dude.”
With the lead, the Lions were also able to dictate tempo, the game finished at 58 possessions, although Jones thought that was the least of his team’s problems. (In Jones’ defense, of the five games Yale had previously played at 58 possessions or fewer this season, the Bulldogs had won them all, including the first win over Columbia and the victory over UConn in December.)
“I’m not sure how many possessions we average, but this wasn’t too far off,” Jones said. “We had opportunities. We only shot 36% and we didn’t make a free throw and didn’t make a three. If we shot 10-22 instead of 5-22 and made some shots, we could have scored 80 points and won easily, so the pace really didn’t bother me as much as what we did offensively.”
Regardless, Yale now has an uphill climb to catch Harvard. Again. It hosts Penn and Princeton next weekend, while Harvard does go to Cornell and Columbia, where in the strange ways of the 14-game tournament, they now become huge Columbia fans and hope the Lions can repeat this performance next weekend. Either way, they are going to have to win at Lavietes Pavilion on March 5 and that will be a tall order. But they did win there last year. And without a conference tournament to fall back on, that’s all Yale has after Saturday night.