Harvard entered Friday night unbeaten in Ivy League play and coming off three straight away wins. Its road momentum continued early on, as the Crimson built a 15-point lead midway through the first half. But an offensive barrage from Columbia, plus a few key stops, completed a comeback that left the Lions with an 83-76 victory.
Levien Gym has been a house of horrors for Harvard — the Crimson (4-1 Ivy League) has now lost four of its last six games in Morningside Heights, its worst record at any Ivy location in that span. So it went Friday, when everything about its season turned upside down. A team whose main weakness was outside shooting banged 16 three-pointers (a 43% rate on 37 attempts, most of which were wide open). But one of the nation’s stingiest defenses surrendered 83 points to the Lions (2-3), including a blistering 1.50 points per possession after halftime.
Columbia’s comeback began midway through the first half. After giving up several three-pointers from a 2-3 zone, the Lions switched to man defense and often brought full-court pressure. The harassment worked, to an extent; the Crimson kept hitting threes but not much else, allowing Columbia to climb back within single digits. Star point guard Mike Smith sat on the bench with two fouls for most of the half; Kyle Castlin stepped up in his absence, with two steals and 12 points in that span.
“We were very tentative, and we didn’t attack [the press] like we should have. We turned it over a couple times, which put us on our heels a little bit more,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “We weren’t aggressive enough, and we didn’t go through it and attack it to score.”
Early in the second half, Quinton Adlesh took over. After an early three-pointer closed the gap, he hit a second triple off of a Smith feed to take the lead, then immediately got a steal and layup. On the next possession, Adlesh drew two defenders on a ballscreen on the left wing, freeing Lukas Meisner for a wide open three-pointer that capped a 17-2 run.
Adlesh added another contested three-pointer, a baseline jumper, and a four-point play within the next three minutes. The junior finished with a team-high 20 points, plus four assists and three steals.
“I was just trying to take shots that I felt I was comfortable with, and when I was in rhythm I was going to let it fly,” Adlesh said. “I had one at the end of the first half that was a little bit questionable — I was 0-for-3 at that point — but I saw that one go in and I felt good after that.”
The Crimson weren’t finished, keeping pace thanks to their own three-pointers. With five minutes left, Chris Lewis held the ball under the rim with a chance to tie the score, but his wide-open bunny was too strong. Smith flicked a floater over Lewis on the other end, and the Lions were never seriously threatened again. A home-run inbound to Patrick Tape in the final two minutes — set up by Adlesh’s diving steal — erased any doubt and gave the Lions their fourth straight home win.
Columbia’s comeback relegated a remarkable performance by Seth Towns to a footnote. Towns scored a career-high 31 points on 22 shooting possessions, getting them from long range (six threes), pull-up jumpers and a couple strong drives to the rim.
Towns is now averaging 23 ppg in Ivy League play, tops in the conference. He might stay there, because Harvard will keep relying on him heavily…
Three more thoughts from Levien:
1. Bryce Aiken is far from 100%, and he might have become even further away. The reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year came off the bench for a third straight game, following a month in which he was (mostly) sidelined with a knee injury. But with two minutes remaining, he pulled up lame while trying to break Columbia’s press along the sideline, grabbing his knee and letting out a dejected, “Aw, shit.” Aiken jogged off the court but was still in pain when he reached the bench, later walking through the postgame handshake with a mild limp.
“We’ll find out more if he’s going to be able to go tomorrow, or even in terms of further — I’m not sure at this point,” Amaker said after the game.
Even before that incident, though, Aiken was hardly his old self. Some of it was rust: After beating two defenders with behind-the-back dribbles early in the first half, he missed the ensuing layup by a full foot. But he lacked explosiveness, and he seemed to tire as the game went on, finishing without scoring (but with four assists) in 19 minutes.
The visitors still scored 1.16 ppp without much from Aiken, but they can’t rely on Towns (and Corey Johnson, who hit five threes) to carry them every night.
2. Mike Smith saved his best for last. The 5-11 point guard is usually Columbia’s engine, but he spent most of the first half refueling. Smith came off the bench for the first time in his career (for “basic team stuff”, according to coach Jim Engles), checking in at the first media timeout. He didn’t stay long, picking up two fouls and playing a season-low six minutes by halftime.
Smith was fresh for the second half, however, scoring 14 points with five assists in the frame. He hit three-pointers over bigger defenders, and he engineered a perfect pick-and-roll that set up a Tape dunk down the stretch. “He was able to keep the offensive pace flowing, he did a good job at the end of the game making sure everyone was involved, and he made big baskets for us,” Engles said. “He played like the Mike Smith that we’re all aware of.”
3. Ivy League play is back in style. Friday marked the first full day of conference games, and all four were thrilling: Princeton and Penn needed overtime to hold off Yale and Brown, respectively, while Cornell overcame a four-point deficit in the final 40 seconds to beat Dartmouth. Columbia’s victory pulled it into a four-way tie for fourth place at 2-3, though the Lions have the best win in that bunch. With half the league bunched together, and even the favorites looking wobbly, the next five weekends should be entertaining.