It’s the dreaded cliché that almost every athlete has heard at some point in their sports career: offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
This line was probably painfully ringing in the ears of many Lions after the past weekend’s road matchups. Although at times its offensive field goal percentage was far from optimal, a lack of points did not kill the Light Blue. A lack of defense did.
On Friday night against Brown, Columbia gave up 39 points to freshman guard Sean McGonagill, in a game that would eventually end as an 87-79 Lions loss. The Light Blue let its sound first-half lead slip as the second half got under way, with McGonagill leading the way in terms of damage. With his 39 points, the freshman’s performance tied a home gym record for the Bears.
“The Brown thing was a little bit of an anomaly,” said coach Kyle Smith. He then added, “But it’s also an indictment on our ability to guard that ball.”
Anomaly or not, the opponent’s performance was emblematic of Columbia’s defensive play for the weekend, even if slightly exaggerated. Yes, Brown’s total shooting percentage from the field may have been amplified compared to its norm, but the fact is that they were getting shots off without much difficulty.
Columbia has been consistently holding the advantage on the boards in its matchups, and despite the recent lower standard of defense, strength on the glass is still not an issue. Although the Lions were out-rebounded overall on Friday night, it wasn’t by a big margin and they still dominated the offensive boards. As a result, Smith is more concerned about his team’s defense than their work on the boards.
“We’re pulling it out of the net all of the time,” Smith said. “So there aren’t a lot of missed shots, and we’re not making them miss enough.”
Saturday night at Yale brought the Lions another tough loss, but there was still a bright spot amidst the weekend darkness. Sophomore guard Dean Kowalski, who hadn’t seen much time off the bench thus far in the season, played 15 minutes, all in the second half, to give the Light Blue a much needed jolt of energy. The outcome looked bleak for Columbia, down 16 at the half, but Kowalski’s three assists and two steals in his 15 minutes gave the Lions a much-needed run, and helped Columbia cut Yale’s shooting percentage from 55 percent in the first half to 42 percent in the second. The entire team agreed—Kowalski’s defensive play kept them in the game and his efforts led the team to come within three points of the Bulldogs at one point.
“Dean is a fantastic defender, right when he got out there, he really D-ed up, got us a couple of turnovers that we really needed and really helped us with our comeback and almost helped us win the game,” said sophomore forward Mark Cisco.
“He did a great job, he sped it up a lot, which is what we needed,” added sophomore guard Brian Barbour.
Could Kowalski’s sparkplug persona be the missing piece of the defensive puzzle? Against smaller teams, the answer may be yes.
“Dean’s good,” said Smith. “He’s a little smallish but he’s good. He can pick up the ball and heat it up a little bit and he’s a good penetrator, good passer, so he might be the answer,” said Smith.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Columbia’s upcoming game against Princeton will yield the opportunity for another Kowalski punch. The guard does on-ball defense better than most, but his “smallish” stature won’t be enough in terms of denying Princeton’s strengths.
“They’ve got four studs, the way I see it,” Smith said of the Tigers. “Both of their guards can drill it from the three but I think their strength is really in their forwards with [Kareem] Maddox and [Ian] Hummer…they post those guys relentlessly.”
In order to beat Princeton, the Lions are going to have to step up defense in all areas. The Light Blue won’t be able to solely direct its focus on wiping out the three or marking the post. The best teams can shut down the post, recover, and transition to the perimeter. If the Lions play solid defense, the rest will follow.
“We’ve got to get stops,” Smith said. “It always comes down to us getting stops and seeing if we can get some early opportunities. That’s usually when we’re best. Our offense is good off transition that way,” said Smith.
There may not be a perfect recipe that can be prepared for universal success, but whether it be a dash of Dean or more depth in the rotation, the Lions will have to stay on their toes and be ready to react to anything thrown at them in order to get back on track this weekend.