Princeton 88, Columbia 83: Dissecting A Difficult Loss

Columbia fans at a sold out Levien Gymnasium had their hearts broken not once, but twice on Saturday night.

The Lions built leads at the end of regulation and in overtime, but couldn’t hold either, as the Tigers stormed back for the 88-83 victory.

Whenver there’s a painful loss like this one, people search for the moments that turned the game. The most frustrating thing for Columbia has to be that the Lions did a lot right down the stretch. They only turned the ball over six times in the entire game. They went 13-18 from the free throw line. And they even forced Princeton’s freshman guard to take a deep three to tie the game.

The issue is that Devin Cannady knocked down that three-point attempt. And then Princeton was the more aggressive team during the final two minutes of overtime and that made all the difference.

Now Princeton, 6-1 in the Ivy League, still controls its own destiny. Yale comes to Jadwin Gymnasium on Friday night for an epic matchup that will define the second half of the Ivy League race. Columbia (6-2 in the Ivy League) will still see Princeton and Yale down the stretch, but the Lions need someone else to knock off the Bulldogs if they’re going to stay in the race.

As Alex Rosenberg said after the game, “we have six games left and we need to win every one.”

Three more thoughts from this game:

1) Isaac Cohen fouling out completely changed the game. Cohen picked up his fifth foul with 3:48 remaining and Columbia leading 67-58. The Lions gave up 18 points during those final four minutes. The numbers next to Cohen’s name in the box score don’t make his loss seem like a big deal. He didn’t score after going 0-2 from the field. He grabbed four rebounds, dished out seven assists and had a block and two steals. But those all understate Cohen’s performance on the defensive end of the court. The most important thing Cohen did? Guard Henry Caruso for most of the game. Caruso finished just 1-10 from the field. Kyle Smith called Cohen’s departure, “Huge.”

“He was really big tonight,” Smith said about Cohen. “Defensive stopper and he had seven assists and he’s a calming influence. We were just a little jittery down the stretch.”

The sample sizes aren’t great (162 possessions on, 392 possessions off), but the impact Cohen makes when he’s on the floor is pretty obvious in Ivy League play. Columbia is 14 points per possession better on offense, and 12 points per possession better on defense when he’s on the floor.

Cohen might not shoot, but he makes darting passes down into the low block for easy layups late in the shot clock. And he might not always make flashy defensive plays, but now that he’s healthy he can stay in front of most guards in the Ivy League and at 6’4 that gives him quite the advantage.

His departure from the game was a backbreaker that Columbia never recovered from.

2) Princeton benched its best player to make the comeback and it worked. For the first 30 minutes of the game it was Princeton center Pete Miller who kept the Tigers in the game. He scored 20 points on 9-10 shooting from the field and grabbed 13 rebounds and was a presence in the middle during his 28 minutes on the court.

Why then did Mitch Henderson take Miller out in order to make the comeback? The Tigers head coach felt a smaller, attacking lineup was the way to get back into the game. They’d done it against Penn in an overtime victory earlier in the season and the same strategy worked in the final minutes against Columbia.

Myles Stephens came in and disrupted a lot of what Columbia wanted to do on the offensive end.

“We think he can be the best defender in the league at some point,” Henderson said about the 6’4 freshman. “Kind of like the [Agunwa] Okolie kid from Harvard. He just spreads himself out and we haven’t had anyone like that around here in a while.”

The Tigers also relentlessly attacked the rim during the latter stages of the second half. It led to 36 free throws for the game and caused Cohen to foul out. It also, in a way, set up the biggest moment of the game.

3) The final 17 seconds of regulation are ones Columbia will live over and over again.

Let’s just go through the play-by-play:

0:17 Alex Rosenberg made 1 of 2 from the free throw line. Hitting one of two makes it a four-point (i.e. two-possession) game.

0:11 Devin Cannady three-pointer. Instead of driving, as they had done most of the second half (and Cannady had done on the previous possession), the precocious freshman just knocks down a three. It makes it a one-point game.

0:08 Maodo Lo made layup. After a timeout the Lions are able to spring Lo streaking past Stephens. C.J. Davis throws a perfect baseball pass, Lo calmly gathers the ball, dribbles down court and lays the ball in the basket. Some people second-guessed if Lo should’ve waited to be fouled or tried to take some time off the clock. Both seem like less than ideal scenarios. Imagine if Lo does wait for Stephens to catch up and is fouled. There’s no guarantee that Lo (a 74% free throw shooter this season) makes both. The layup guarantees you the three-point lead and forces Princeton’s hand.

For his part, Cannady didn’t seem convinced either way.

“I’m not sure what was going through his head at the time,” Cannady said about Lo going in for the layup. “It worked in our favor in the end, so I can’t really talk about that.”

0:05 Devin Cannady three-pointer. It looked that Columbia expected Cannady to drive—there was still a good deal of time left. When he didn’t and instead immediately pulled up for the NBA-range three-pointer it caught almost everyone in the building off guard. It was a clean look though and the freshman nailed it.

“We were just trying to get to the bucket and I think Columbia knew that so they backed off and I think I’m a shooter so I shot my shot and it went in,” Cannady said later about the look.

By now it’s obvious where Kyle Smith stands on the #FoulOrDefend debate. If he could’ve called a timeout—neither team had any remaining at that point—he would’ve reminded his team to foul at under six seconds.

“We were supposed to foul up three under six seconds. Didn’t. Cannady stuck it,” Smith said.

0:00 Grant Mullins missed three-quarter court heave. Here’s the thing. Columbia still had about three or four seconds after Cannady’s shot went in. But the Lions seemed stunned by the moment. The ball was inbounded into Mullins—who had an excellent game with 19 points and 12 rebounds—but he didn’t seem to realize the urgency of the situation.

And then it was off to overtime. Columbia would build a lead in the extra session, but then it all collapsed. Princeton scored the final 12 points of the extra period to clinch the victory. It’s those 17 seconds that the Lions will never get back.

3 thoughts on “Princeton 88, Columbia 83: Dissecting A Difficult Loss

  1. If somehow Columbia ends up finishing one game out of first place this season, then I Saturday’s game would rank very near the top in the list of tragic heart-breaking events in Lion sports history.

    If somehow Princeton winds up going to the NCAA tournament this year, I will grudgingly concede that its motto “Dei Sub Numine Viget” does mean “God went to Princeton.” There is no other possible explanation for the CU-PU result than heavenly intervention.

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  2. On Thursday I had an e-conversation with a former Princeton standout who reminded me of a real slog of a game his Ivy title-winning squad won a few years prior. “If you want to be the champs, you have to win the ugly ones too,” I said.

    Columbia will look back on the game tape and shake their collective heads at how many crazy-ass layup attempts they missed. At one point in the first half Princeton was down 10-11 and it could have easily been 18-19.

    Surviving the frigid opening 20 minutes “only” down four was significant to me.

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  3. Hey, Jon, good to see your name online.

    That was an agonizing but inspiriting game for a Princeton fan. Miller’s impact in the first half wasn’t just in the scoring and rebounding columns. He was altering shots and drives all during the game (one reason the Lions had so many ORs was that he was rotating hard to contest penetration so much). That effort, and some good defensive play on Lo, is largely why the Tigers weren’t blown out in the first half.

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