Columbia Beats Penn, Princeton Looms

This isn’t how Columbia normally does things.

Struggles from the free throw line and beyond the arc slowed down Columbia’s offense, but an excellent defensive performance lifted the Lions to a 63-53 victory over Penn on Friday night at Levien Gymnasium.

The win creates a humongous contest on Saturday night against Princeton in front of what will certainly be a sold out and raucous arena. It wouldn’t have happened though without the excellent defensive effort. The Lions held the Quakers to just 0.79 points per possession as they swarmed Darien Nelson-Henry in the paint and did just enough to make sure Penn’s perimeter players didn’t hurt them.

Guarded by a combination of Luke Petrasek, Jeff Coby and even Chris McComber, Penn’s 6’11” senior center struggled from the field, shooting 4-12. He did however have six assists as Penn kept forcing the ball through their big man on almost every possession. Nelson-Henry also grabbed four offensive rebounds, but the rest of his team grabbed only two.

And in the backcourt Maodo Lo and Grant Mullins (and C.J. Davis, who is a strong on-ball defender for a freshman) were giving Penn’s young guards fits. Mullins had six steals and Lo’s rangy athleticism forced freshmen Jake Silpe and Jackson Donahue to think about every move they made. Thinking isn’t good for basketball players and both struggled from the field.

Of course Columbia had to have that excellent defensive effort to move to 6-1 in Ivy League play because the offense struggled in its return to Morningside Heights after five games on the road. Columbia scored 0.94 points per possession, a decidedly subpar performance for the typically high-flying Lions. They shot just 7-19 from the free throw line and 6-19 from three.

Thankfully Lo was there to lift Columbia out of its doldrums. After a relatively quiet first half where he scored nine points on six shots, the senior point guard scored 12 more in the second half (and that was even after missing to straight free throws after an intentional foul). Penn hung tough for 28:30, but an 11-0 run pushed the lead to 52-40, which was more than enough to see Columbia home.

It was actually Coby who started the run for the Lions. Getting some extra playing time because of his effectiveness on the defensive end against Nelson-Henry, the lithe 6’8″ junior forward took advantage of an open three and an assist from Mullins to score five straight points. After baskets from Mullins and Lo, Coby capped off the run with another basket. Coby finished the game with nine points, seven during that critical juncture in the second half. He shot 4-7 overall from the field and grabbed six boards.

This was the 12th time this season that Columbia had held an opponent under one point per possession and—as Kyle Smith pointed out postgame—the Lions have won all 12 of those contests, including five in Ivy play. The challenge is going to be extra hard on Saturday night. Princeton scored 1.21 points per possession against Cornell on Friday night and that was with the Tiger reserves playing much of the second half. How Columbia deals with difficult matchups such as Henry Caruso, Devin Cannady and Spencer Weisz will go along way towards determining the Ivy League race.

Still, it probably won’t look anything like Friday night. Then again not many Columbia games do.

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