Kyle Smith looked down at the ground and shook his head as he walked alone back to the Columbia locker room. It was a game that the Lions head coach wouldn’t admit was a must win, even as his blank stare in the post game press conference told a different story.
Thirteen days before, he’d watched Columbia’s eight-point second-half lead slip away, then a seven-point overtime lead turn into a five point loss to Princeton. On Friday, with a chance to make up for that defeat and keep the Lions in control of their own Ivy League title destiny, Columbia lost 88-83 – the exact same score as nearly two weeks before.
“They just outplayed us tonight,” Smith said. “I’ll take our team against anybody. We’ll still have opportunities here. We’ve got to rally up.”
Princeton rallied on Friday, hitting 13-21 from 3 and shooting 63.3% from the floor in its win over Columbia at Jadwin Gym. After shooting a combined 4-24 against Columbia at Levien two weeks ago, the trio of Spencer Weisz, Henry Caruso and Steven Cook combined for 60 points on 22-31 shooting.
Though Columbia isn’t mathematically eliminated, they sit 1.5 games behind Princeton and two games back of Yale with just three games left to play. The win also sets up a tremendous stretch run between the Tigers and the Bulldogs. If both teams win out, it would set up another one-game playoff to determine who plays in the NCAA tournament.
“I said to the guys before the game, ‘I think it’s going to be a high-scoring game,’” Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson said. “But I was hoping and praying it wouldn’t be. Because if it was a high-scoring game, I thought it was going to be close.”
Columbia ran most of its offense through Isaac Cohen, who averages just three points per game. He poured in a career-high 19 for the Lions, who were being forced off the 3-point line by Princeton. Maodo Lo got to the rim, hitting eight shots inside the arc, but the Lions’ main threats were held at bay.
With the score tied at 32 less than four minutes before halftime, the Tigers went on a 10-1 run capped by a long 3-pointer from Weisz just before the buzzer. The lead went all the way up to 17 in the second half, before Columbia made a furious comeback.
Jeff Coby hits two free throws to start the run. Then Grant Mullins hit a layup. Then Lo did the same twice more. After Mullins made a runner in the lane, the seemingly impenetrable Princeton lead was down to 75-71 with 2:40 to play.
“I felt great,” Smith said. “If they missed that, and we would have come up with it. I really would have liked to have that chance.”
But Columbia didn’t have that chance. With the shot clock set to expire, Cook buried a three from the corner, pumping his fist at the crowd that exploded in excitement. On the next trip down, Devin Cannady did hit another on the opposite side.
For a moment, the Lions had breathed life back into their season. Then in one quick, yet painful stretch, it was all but over.
“We’ve just got to control what we can control,” Lo said before the players got up from the press conference podium.
“These guys are hungry,” Smith said right after.
“We’re looking forward to Penn,” Alex Rosenberg followed up.
There’s still meaning to Saturday’s game at Penn on Saturday, but it doesn’t have the same meaning that it would have, or could have had.
There was a brief pause at the press table.
“Let’s go,” Smith said to his players, before they got up and walked out.