Navy 73, Columbia 68: Déjà vu for the Lions

When Columbia jumped ahead of Navy 31-13 late in the first half, few at Levien Gymnasium felt the lead would be safe. In three of their previous four games (against UConn, Albany and Stony Brook), the Lions blew a double-digit lead in the second half; in the fourth (vs. Quinnipiac), they had a two-possession lead in the final five minutes but lost that as well.

Sure enough, the Midshipmen reeled off a 29-11 run that sandwiched halftime, tying the game early in the second period. Columbia went back ahead by as many as eight points, but a four-minute scoreless streak down the stretch cost the hosts the lead and the game.

Star guard Shawn Anderson led Navy with 12 rebounds and 21 points, including four in the final two minutes that gave Navy the lead for good. The senior drew two free throws after catching a lob over two defenders deep in the post, then drove from the wing for an easy layup. Mike Smith scored 28 points on 11-15 shooting, but his potential game-tying jumper with 10 seconds left rattled out, dooming Columbia to another second-half defeat.

“It’s something we obviously need to rectify — the flow of the game in the second half, both offensively and defensively. We haven’t started the halves well defensively, and then offensively, we just haven’t been able to gain any momentum and get back in control,” Columbia coach Jim Engles said. “We have one more game against BC, and then we’ll have time after the break to help some of those issues.”

Columbia built its first-half lead by shooting 10-14 from three-point range, a rate that was predictably unsustainable. Sure enough, the Lions were just 2-11 after halftime. Navy didn’t shoot much better from distance, but it didn’t need to, making smart interior passes to get open layups and rebounding the shots that missed. 24 of the Midshipmen’s 41 second-half points came in the paint, with another seven coming from the free-throw line.

Navy center Evan Wieck scored 14 points on perfect 7-7 shooting, including 10 after halftime. Meanwhile, Columbia’s big men (Patrick Tape, Lukas Meisner and Jaron Faulds) scored just six points in a combined 49 minutes.

“They took control of us a little bit off penetration,” Engles said. “They were able to find the big over the top sometimes, or he was able to get an offensive rebound and put it back in. We needed to do a better job of keeping the ball out of the paint, both through the dribble and through the pass.”

The result was another frustrating loss for the Lions, who are now 1-9 on the season (Navy improved to 9-3). But five of those defeats have come by two possessions or less. That should give Columbia fans hope that it can turn things around when Ivy League play starts next month — unless the Lions’ all-too-familiar pattern of bad luck persists.

Three more thoughts from Levien Gym:

1. Has Mike Smith reached a new level? The sophomore’s 28 points set a career high, but more impressive was how he got there: Smith was 7-10 on two-pointers and 4-5 on threes. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked at the five-minute mark of the second half — and even on that possession, he kept running to the corner and immediately knocked down a three. His last look was a good one given the circumstances — an open, in-rhythm elbow jumper — but unlike most of his previous shots, that one didn’t fall.

“It looked good, it went in and out,” Smith said. “It wasn’t meant for us to win if I didn’t make it, so it is what it is.”

Smith has struggled with inefficient shooting for his career. On paper, he’s turned a corner this month, posting an offensive rating above 100 in all four games while averaging 23 ppg. However, the biggest factor has been his 54% shooting on threes, which has papered over a couple difficult games (3-9 inside the arc at Albany, 1-10 against Stony Brook). So expect to see more of the old hot-and-cold Smith going forward, even if he’s improved overall.

One area where Smith has never struggled, however, is ball control. His turnover rate has always been shockingly low for a high-usage point guard — he’s committed more than two turnovers just once in his last 20 games — and in three games this week, he totaled 20 assists against four giveaways. Throw in the fact that Smith played 119 of 120 minutes (a trend that’s likely to continue), and he’s on a clear All-Ivy track so far.

2. Hello, Myles Hanson. The rookie had been in and out of Columbia’s rotation early in the season, but he fit right in on Sunday. Hanson hit three first-half treys to finish with 14 points, one shy of his career total entering the game.

He limped off the court late in the first half but shook off the incident, finishing with six rebounds and two assists and scoring on a nice blow-by drive in the second half. He looked more like a rookie on two late possessions, losing the ball out of bounds with the game tied and then clanking a potential go-ahead three-pointer wide off the rim. Still, Hanson should get more opportunities going forward. (Tai Bibbs was another helpful rookie, scoring 12 points on three treys in 28 minutes.)

3. Keep your Columbia rosters handy. Hanson became the tenth Columbia player to score in double figures this season, an impressive feat through ten games. Within the Ivy League, Penn is second with nine such players (counting D-I games only), followed by Brown with eight; Princeton ranks last with only four. Granted, the number and pace of games played by each team varies, but the Lions’ count already matches last year’s Ivy high for the entire season (10 players for Columbia and Cornell).

It’s a fun stat that well reflects Columbia’s style: Jim Engles has a lot of options, and he mixes and matches them liberally according to matchups and performance. But it also shows the downside — ten different players probably wouldn’t be in position to score double figures if some of them were doing so more consistently.

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