For several seasons, Harvard has been the team that can’t lose close games. Whether it was overtime squeakers or playoff game-winners, the Crimson always seemed to come out on top, going 16-3 in Ivy games decided by five points or less from 2012-15. Columbia, meanwhile, was the league’s hard-luck team, going 5-17 in such games.
In a packed Lavietes Pavilion on Saturday, Alex Rosenberg changed all that with one shot. The senior pulled up at the foul line, shot across his body, and watched it drop through the net as the buzzer sounded, giving Columbia a 55-54 win over the Crimson.
“I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite spot [to shoot from]. I tried to go to the basket and realized I probably wouldn’t have enough time, so I pulled up and kinda lost my footing,” Rosenberg said. “It’s something I’ve practiced before, but not usually that deep out.”
The shot was especially sweet for Rosenberg. Two years ago at Levien Gymnasium, Rosenberg thought he had defeated Harvard with a game-winning shot — until it was waved off for an offensive foul, a call Columbia fans have never lived down. Harvard went on to win the game in double-overtime.
“Unfortunately, I’ve heard that play too many times. Everyone brings it up, ‘You should’ve beat them two years ago, when they were very good.’ I didn’t think it was a charge, I’ve watched the film many times, but you can’t change the calls,” he said. “Obviously, it feels much better to get this one now, because it’s my senior year, this year means everything to us. We’re on a roll so far, hopefully we can keep it going.”
In last year’s meeting at Harvard, Columbia overcame a 17-point halftime deficit, only to lose in the final seconds. The Lions stormed back after trailing by as many as 20 points on Saturday, but when Maodo Lo’s three-pointer rattled out with 12 seconds remaining, it looked as if they would fall short once again.
But they were saved by Harvard’s deadly flaw — free-throw shooting. Patrick Steeves and Corbin Miller, two of the team’s top shooters, each missed the front end of a one-and-one in the final minute. Lo brought the ball up as the clock ran low, but he gave the ball to Rosenberg for a better matchup.
“I would’ve shot the last ball, but Rosie said, ‘No, no, no, I’m open.’ So I thought, if he’s open, take that shot instead of a contested one against two guys. He came through and delivered the shot.”
Rosenberg’s shot might have been the dagger, but Columbia (4-0 Ivy) won the game with its defense. That unit has been criticized often, and it showed why early on against Harvard (1-3 Ivy). The smaller Lions couldn’t handle Zena Edosomwan, or even Evan Cummins and Agunwa Okolie, as the hosts earned 17 of their first 20 points in the paint. Nine minutes in, the Crimson held a 23-6 lead, having scored 1.77 points per possession.
From that point forward, though, Harvard scored just .66 ppp for the rest of the game. One key was effort — Lo (among others) was given a rest midway through the first half after a lazy close-out led to a wide-open layup for Corey Johnson; he returned much sharper, finishing with four steals. Another was matchups — Chris McComber stymied Edosomwan in the post in the second half, while defensive specialist John Sica played 10 minutes, a career high in D-1 games.
But the biggest key was Columbia’s pressure. The Lions were the most aggressive they’ve been all season, attacking passing lanes and ballhandlers on the perimeter, and aggressively doubling Edosomwan when he got the ball. Harvard has struggled with that kind of pressure all season, and it turned the ball over 15 times (25% of possessions), allowing the visitors to come back.
“They put the pressure on us in the first half, we had to put it back on them in the second half,” Rosenberg said. “If we don’t pressure them, they can pick their passes, they can get it in to the big guy and make threes. We told each other, we aren’t going to win this game if we play like that in the second half. So we tried pressuring them, it started working, so we kept with it.”
The Lions played their best defensive 30 minutes of the season at the perfect time, because they struggled to score. Edosomwan blocked two shots in the opening minutes and walled off the rim, leaving Columbia to settle for wild runners or deep looks from its least dangerous shooters. Lo hit a pair of three-pointers late in the half (including one step-back that sent Okolie reeling), but the Lions still had only 17 points at the break.
But as Harvard proved this weekend, games can change in an instant. The Lions escaped halftime on a 10-0 run, seeking out the best matchups for Rosenberg and Luke Petrasek on the perimeter. With 7:25 remaining, Rosenberg went backdoor from the left wing, finishing with an easy layup that gave Columbia its first lead.
After a game filled with weird, long runs, the final minutes were truly entertaining basketball. Edosomwan injured his ankle on a violent block in the second half, spending the stretch run on the bench. But Weisener Perez, rarely seen in Ivy play, gave the Crimson eight straight points — including two smooth catch-and-shoot threes. (The freshman had made only one three-pointer this season.)
Grant Mullins answered those with a three-pointer of his own, after Rosenberg saved an errant pass from going out the baseline. Petrasek and Cummins traded tough shots from the post in the penultimate minute, setting up Rosenberg’s winning jumper. The score was within one possession for all of the final nine minutes.
A list of ‘firsts’ show that this isn’t the same Ivy League we’ve seen recently. Columbia won at Lavietes for the first time since 2008. Harvard was swept on a home weekend for the first time since 2009, and lost three straight Ivy games for the first time since the same year. The Crimson are now three games back for the first time since 2010, also the last time they didn’t win a share of the title.
But the most important ‘first’ is the standings — as in, where the Lions currently rank, tied with undefeated Yale. They haven’t started 4-0 since 1994, and they haven’t won a league title since 1968. But with three road wins in hand — and a shot at a huge one Friday, when they visit Yale — Columbia can dream big.
“We’re healthy, which is most important. Health was an issue for us early in the season, but now we feel pretty good,” Rosenberg said. “We’re going to enjoy this for tonight, and tomorrow, it’s on to Yale.”