Columbia’s 70-67 win over Penn was huge on a number of levels: It was a tight, back-and-forth game in a fun atmosphere; it had an enormous impact on the Ivy League Tournament race; and it exemplified the post-14 Game Tournament era. John covered most of the action last night, but here are five leftover thoughts:
1. Columbia’s big three came through in their biggest game. Jim Engles shifted to more defensive lineups against the Quakers, playing Kendall Jackson more than twice his prior high in minutes and relying on big men like Conor Voss and Chris McComber. They played their roles well, but didn’t do much offensively — Jackson never shot again after hitting a three on the opening possession, only three players scored more than six points.
Those three were the Lions’ stars: Mike Smith, Luke Petrasek and Nate Hickman, who often seemed to be playing 3-on-5 on the offensive end. They combined for 50 of the hosts’ 70 points, 13 of 14 free throws, and nine of 14 assists. The result: 70 points on 66 possessions against a strong Penn defense — Columbia’s best since before its five-game losing streak, and just enough to win.
Petrasek was on a mission from the start, taking advantage of mismatches, scoring off the dribble, and shooting at every opportunity. While playing a team-high 36 minutes, he was also strong on the other end, blocking two shots and getting two steals (including a big one down the stretch that led to an open three). John covered Smith’s performance; the rookie forced a lot of off-balance shots early on, but he closed strong for 20 points, including a step-back three-pointer that ultimately made the difference.
2. Once again, Penn got the shooting it needed. Columbia abandoned its usual zone to play most of the game man-to-man, but Penn still got off 25 three-pointers — and made 10 of them. Three-point shooting was one of the biggest differences between the Quakers’ 0-6 start and their 5-1 bounceback, and if they can keep shooting 40% in the final weekend, they’ll have a great chance to keep playing.
Four of those treys came from Jackson Donahue in the first six minutes, capped by a mega-heat-check from 26 feet on the right wing. Donahue didn’t hit another triple, but his shots helped keep the Quakers afloat when nothing else was falling — a reversal from most of the season, when his three-point percentage has hovered around 30%.
“It’s been an up-and-down year for him in terms of shooting the basketball, which is obviously a critical piece to him,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “The other thing he brings us is so many intangibles — his fight, his verbal and non-verbal leadership every day in practice. He’s just not made consistent, game-in and game-out shotmaking. That has a little to do with his reputation from last year — I think teams have done a good job with him, and maybe early on we didn’t have a lot around him — but I think he’s playing his best basketball.”
3. We still have a race for the Ivy League Tournament. Given the other results around the league, Penn would have clinched a postseason berth with a victory on Saturday night. Instead, the race is wide-open, as the Quakers and Lions are tied with two games to play. I’ll have more on the full playoff race tomorrow — the tiebreaker procedures get quite complicated, and could involve Yale or Dartmouth — but the simplest outcome is: If either Columbia or Penn wins more games than the other next weekend, they are in and the other is out.
Who has the advantage? Probably Penn, because it’s playing at home, and it’s been stronger on balance this season. But the Quakers have to close their season against Harvard, while the Lions visit Brown and Yale, which have both struggled in recent weeks. The precise stakes of every game are confusing, but at least the tournament field isn’t set in stone yet.
4. Columbia is still kicking, which is great for the program. The current standings break the Ivy League into three clean tiers: Princeton, Harvard and Yale are at the top, a combined 24-2 against everyone else; Penn and Columbia are in the middle, with two games of separation on each side; and Cornell, Brown and Dartmouth are all tied at 3-9. That’s no coincidence — Princeton, Harvard and Yale have all been in the top half for seven straight years, while Penn and Columbia are the only other teams to finish better than .500 at any point in that span.
When Jim Engles was hired, I wrote that Columbia’s long-run performance might be the Ivy League’s biggest question. It’s still early in his tenure, but it’s heartening to see the Lions hanging in that middle tier, even in a season with lots of roster turnover. And Levien Gym felt like an environment capable of supporting a regular contender last night. “I don’t remember the support being like this when I was an assistant [from 2003-08],” he said “When you play in some of these gyms right now, it’s literally a big-time environment.”
5. The Ivy League Tournament means a lot to players. The stakes of Saturday’s game were palpable from the start — Petrasek crowed after a big early block, Jackson Donahue yelled after each of his three-pointers, and a contested rebound led to a minor scuffle. When asked after the game if it was his biggest win, Petrasek didn’t hesitate: “Yes it is. With the Ivy League Tournament this season, this win really helps us get to where we need to be for our goal of making the tournament, and we just got it done today.”
I was a bit surprised by how unambiguous his response was, given that Columbia had a much better record last year and won the CIT. Mock the ghost brackets all you want, but that title was a big deal at the time — and winning it was certainly more difficult than anything this year’s Lions have accomplished so far. On its own, contending for fourth place in an eight-team league is nothing special, as Engles mentioned on Saturday.
But whereas the CIT was just a cool bonus, the Ivy League Tournament is already the main goal from day one for players around the league. Reaching the postseason is easier now than when it was championship-or-bust, but that doesn’t necessarily make it less special. Fan opinion on the tournament is still very polarized, but I’m starting to get a better understanding of why players have been strongly in favor.