STORRS, Conn.—Against the much taller Connecticut Huskies, it was not the rebounding of the Columbia men’s basketball team that caused problems, but rather the shooting.
The Lions (0-1) fell 70-57 against the No. 4-ranked defending national champions on Friday night at Gampel Pavilion in both teams’ first regular-season game of the year.
Though the Light Blue only lost by 13 points, the team struggled to find any offensive rhythm, shooting less than 30 percent from both two-point and three-point range compared to the Huskies’ 50 percent field goal average.
“They’re long everywhere and I knew it’d be hard to make baskets, especially around the rim,” Columbia head coach Kyle Smith said. “I knew we’d have to make a lot of threes to compete, and we didn’t.”
Columbia was not lacking in scoring opportunities, taking a total of 73 shots—21 more than the Huskies. But a combination of blocked shots by UConn’s frontcourt and poor finishing left the Lions trailing from the opening minute onwards.
“We definitely got what we wanted,” senior guard Noruwa Agho said. “I think it’s a matter of making the right decisions at times and just really finishing. If I make half those layups, then it’s a whole different ball game hopefully.”
Though Agho led the Light Blue with 16 points, he went 6-25 and never made his way to the foul line.
The only thing keeping the Lions in the game was the effort from the Columbia frontcourt, including junior center Mark Cisco and senior forward Blaise Staab.
Staab, who finished with a game-high 12 rebounds, started on Friday for the first time in his collegiate career due to an ankle sprain suffered by junior forward John Daniels earlier in the week.
“The game plan tonight was to put a body on the big guys and we did that,” Staab said. “Me and Mark did that and the guards were able to pick up some loose ones.”
Though UConn outrebounded Columbia 43-41, the Light Blue outworked the Huskies on the offensive boards 20-10, and the defense by the Lions’ frontcourt limited the Huskies’ options at the post.
The lack of offense from UConn’s big men forced sophomore guards Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier to carry the team. Lamb led all scorers with a career-high 30 points, and Napier was close behind with 21.
UConn head coach Jim Calhoun stressed the lackluster performance by UConn’s frontcourt compared to the smaller but more persistent Lions.
“They had two, three guys that were beating our guys,” Calhoun said. “20 offensive rebounds for Columbia—I’m sure that their coach should be happy. I would be happy if my team could give that kind of effort.”
Where the Huskies did dominate was perimeter shooting and transition play, and both these strengths were evident throughout the game.
The Huskies took a 3-0 lead one minute into the game and it was not long before the Lions fell behind. Though Columbia kept the margin in single digits for most of the first half, UConn led by 15 at the break.
The Lions played better basketball in the second period, but they could not find a way to stop Lamb and Napier, who pushed the lead to as much as 18.
Several times, the Lions looked to be getting hot on the offensive end, but big plays by the Huskies—including a 10-0 offensive run and Lamb’s crowd-raising baseline dunk over Cisco—kept the Light Blue out of it.
“It just got down to defending,” junior guard Brian Barbour said. “We were doing a good job at first and then they got loose a little bit in transition, which I think really hurt us more than anything.”
Despite the loss, the Lions are viewing Friday’s game as a learning experience and a testament to the team’s spirited effort on the glass.
The Light Blue will have a chance to bounce back on Monday night in its home opener against Furman (1-0).
The Paladins are coming off a 75-49 routing of Roanoke College in their first game on Friday, during which senior forward Brandon Sebirumbi had 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Last year, Furman made it to the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament, finishing with a 22-11 overall record. The last time Columbia faced the Paladins was in 1976, when the Lions took a 93-79 victory.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. in Levien Gym.