Three Thoughts: Columbia 70, Wofford 59

The first half against Wofford didn’t go nearly the way Kyle Smith planned. Columbia opened the game with four straight turnovers and trailed at the break, but the Lions turned things around in the second half and defeated the Terriers 70-59 at Levien Gymnasium on Tuesday night.

Despite the fact that the Lions nearly made Smith crush his new glasses in frustration there were a number of positives that came out of the win. Here are three thoughts.

1. The first and second halves were completely different: Columbia really struggled during the first half. The four turnovers set an early, ugly tone, and all of the Lions’ stars struggled. Alex Rosenberg, Grant Mullins and Maodo Lo combined to shoot 1-6 from the field during the first half.

“First half we just started a little flat,” Rosenberg said.

Luckily for the Lions the three stars received a lot of help from the bench. Jeff Coby scored seven points and grabbed six rebounds in six first half minutes. Also, Nate Hickman played 11 minutes and scored five points during the first half.

Rosenberg was an especially good example of the transformation between halves. The forward struggled on both offense and on defense against Wofford forward Justin Gordon, who scored eight points during the first half. Rosenberg played only nine minutes during the first half and was extremely passive, taking just one three-point shot during the entire half.

“I just wasn’t as locked in as I needed to be,” Rosenberg said. “I had an early foul and that sort of threw things off a little bit. My teammates picked me up, gave me confidence.”

But things completely changed after halftime. Rosenberg was much more aggressive and some new on-ball action freed up space to shoot. He was on the court for 15 minutes in the second half and scored 14 points on 4-5 shooting and 3-4 from the free throw line. During the second half Rosenberg played like a first-team all-Ivy League player, which is what Columbia needs to compete for a league title.

2. Columbia plays defense: For the second straight game the Lions held an opponent under a point per possession. Wofford scored 59 points in 62 possessions, or 0.95 points per possesion. Kyle Smith had his team commit to playing man-to-man defense against a Wofford team that lives from behind the arc. While the Terriers shot 4-5 from three during the first half, they were just 2-7 in the second half. The Lions also rebounded the ball well and only allowed 11 free throw attempts.

Only forward Justin Gordon found space against Columbia’s defense. He was able to take advantage of occasional matchups against Rosenberg, but foul trouble limited Gordon’s effectiveness a bit and ultimately he was held to 14 points on 13 shots and he also committed four turnovers in 29 minutes. All of the CU guards committed to chasing Wofford off the perimeter and the Terriers took 38 two-point attempts. That’s a win for Columbia’s defense.

“Wofford’s a great shooting team, so our key was to just chase their guards off the three-point line and our forwards and centers were going to plug it up,” Cohen said. “We had some errors early, but besides that we did a pretty good job of not letting them get easy looks at three.”

Considering the athleticism that players like Luke Petrasek and Jeff Coby possess on the interior this defensive strategy could be a solid one moving forward. Also, Isaac Cohen is an excellent defender who gives Kyle Smith a ton of flexibility. Cohen can play any defensive position on the court, which makes him an excellent emergency stop-gap in man-to-man situations.

The game at Fairfield on Friday should offer an interesting challenge for the Lions, as the Stags are coming off a 113-point performance against Maryland-Eastern Shore on Tuesday.

3. Columbia needs its bench: Jeff Coby scored seven points and grabbed five rebounds in the first half and Nate Hickman added five points. Those two performances helped the Lions keep things close even while the stars struggled.

“That little group, the backups coming off the bench they gave us good energy, the have good quickness, so I think we’re building there,” Smith said.

Freshman Lukas Meisner played six minutes during the first half and grabbed three rebounds and hit a baseline jumper while classmate C.J. Davis played some key minutes down the stretch.

The Lions need all those players to steal them some extra minutes during non-conference play—and during Ivy League back-to-backs. Maodo Lo has been playing basketball for almost an entire year now after playing with Germany over the summer and needs a rest. Smith acknowledged after the game that Lo is a bit tired right now. He won’t really get a chance to rest until the two-week break after the game against Robert Morris on Dec. 14. Until then Smith will manage Lo’s minutes and ask him to exert the most effort on the defensive end.

“Maodo’s fatigued. There’s no doubt about it,” Smith said. “I just said to Maodo, ‘You’ve got to dig in and guard.’ That’s all going to come together and him sacrificing that has helped us. He’s taking on the challenge of guarding.”

Until the Lions can get to the break it’ll be up to players such as C.J. Davis, Kyle Castlin, and Nate Hickman to play solid minutes off the bench to allow others to rest.

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