On Saturday, Columbia picked up its second straight road win by handling Bryant comfortably in a 69-57 game that the Lions blew open with a strong second-half performance. The Light Blue found themselves holding a tenuous three-point lead at halftime after the Bulldogs connected on a 3-pointer with eight seconds left before the break. With the win, the Lions’ record is now 5-4 while the Bulldogs fall to 0-10.
Columbia opened the second half with a 7-2 run and continued to dominate throughout, opening up an 11-point lead midway through the half. Sophomore guard Noruwa Agho continued his strong play and maintained his hot streak, following up a career-high 30 points against Wagner by scoring 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting. Agho was a big part of the Lions’ push to distance themselves from the host Bulldogs in the second half, as 15 of his points came after halftime.
Columbia spread the points around on the afternoon. Four Light Blue players registered double-digit points, with junior Brian Grimes pulling down seven rebounds to go with his 12 points. Senior guards Patrick Foley and Niko Scott each contributed ten points, while Asenso Ampim came off the bench to pull down a team-high 11 rebounds.
Head coach Joe Jones attributed his team’s offensive balance to the cohesion his squad is developing as the team gets more time together.
“I think we’re just getting more used to playing together,” Jones said. “We didn’t have the luxury of having this group together last year,” he continued, citing the Light Blue’s plethora of offseason injuries and changing roles. “With Pat Foley at full strength, Brian Grimes, John Daniels, and Mark Cisco, those are four guys that didn’t play [much or] at all last year. Noruwa is in a different role than he was last year.”
Yet the game, a tale of two halves, hinged not on the Lions’ offense but on their ability to turn up the pressure on the defensive end. Jones explained that in the first half the Lions were caught off guard by a few offensive sets from the Bulldogs, and needed halftime to go over defensive assignments.
“We made some adjustments at halftime,” Jones said, “on a couple of sets that they ran that we needed to go over. [In the first half] they caught us on some layups.”
Once Jones and the team broke from halftime the problems seemed to have been solved. Columbia wreaked havoc on Bryant’s offense, limiting them to six points in the first 7:06 of the second half.
“In the second half, we just wanted to keep the intensity going,” Jones explained. “And we were able to do that. I thought our focus was really good.”
The Light Blue finished the game with a season-high 14 steals, scoring 22 points off of turnovers.
At the same time, it was forcing miscues on the other end, Columbia had some issues itself turning the ball over. Scott, Foley, and Agho, the starting guards for the Light Blue, combined for eight turnovers and only two assists.
“I thought we had some bad ones today,” said Jones. “I think it was our fourth or fifth game in thirteen days. And it was our second road game in a row, and I think we were real sluggish in some areas. There are some things we need to go over.” However, Jones pointed out, for the game the Lions only had 15 turnovers, just one more than their team goal heading into each contest.
For the home team, freshman Raphael Jordan led the way with 13 points in 31 minutes. Classmate Michael Chroney chipped in 10 points and 5 rebounds, while Chris Birrell added eight points. Perhaps the player with the biggest impact was not even in the game. Senior Cecil Gresham, by far the Bulldogs’ leading scorer as well as the team’s statistical co-leader in rebounds per game, was sidelined by injury. His absence was severely felt on Bryant’s end, as the Bulldogs failed to find a go-to option on offense despite the efforts of first-year competitors Chroney and Jordan.
The Bulldogs’ lack of identity on offense did however indirectly work in their favor, at least in the first half. Jones pointed to Gresham’s injury as one of the factors in Columbia’s trouble early on in dealing with Bryant’s offensive sets. Because Gresham has played such a large role for the Bulldogs so far this season, the Light Blue had a tough time figuring out what to expect from their opponents.
As a result of missing their star, the Bulldogs tried to slow the tempo of the game down and limit the Lions to fewer opportunities on offense.
“They were really trying to score late in the shot clock to try to slow the game down and make it less possessions,” Jones said.
But figure it out they did, and thanks in large part to the heightened defensive pressure in the second 20 minutes, Columbia now looks ahead to an 11-day break with a winning record and a feeling of optimism.
“I was very pleased with our mindset today,” Jones said. “I was more pleased with this game than with the Wagner game, to be honest with you. I thought from start to finish they played a more complete basketball game, even though it wasn’t perfect.”
Jones seemed to think the team was coming together, and ready to peak in time for the Ivy League conference.
“We have a lot of guys who are just starting to play together,” Jones said. “And it’s going to take us some time before I feel like we’re where we need to be. I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
The key to continuing to improve: consistently having multiple threats on the offensive end.
“I think we have four guys who are capable of, night in and night out, scoring in double figures,” Jones said. “And with those guys in double figures, I think we’re just a lot better.”
And so while other students are at home for winter break, the Lions will be busy continuing to come together in a slew of nonconference contests. On Dec. 23 Columbia will travel to Quinnipiac before returning home to host Maine on Dec. 30.
On Jan. 4, the Lions bring in the New Year with a home date against American. After travelling to Easton, Penn. to take on Lafayette two days later, Columbia plays their final Ivy League tune-up on Jan. 11 against St. Francis (NY) in Levien Gym. On Jan. 16, the Ivy League schedule begins with a matchup against reigning league champ Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y.
The Lions have their conference home opener against the Big Red the very next weekend on Jan. 23, just days after students return to campus. Six games separate Saturday’s win in Smithfield, R.I. and Cornell’s visit to Morningside Heights. Whether or not the Light Blue continues to come together on the offensive end will go a long way to determining how it fares during that all-important interlude.