It wasn’t easy, but nothing was on this night.
Junior center Mark Cisco’s second free throw rattled home with 2.4 seconds remaining to help Columbia edge visiting Holy Cross 46-45 in a thrilling comeback win at Levien Gymnasium. Trailing by as many as 20 points early in the second half, the Light Blue clawed its way back in the gritty affair, its fourth game in five days. With their backs against the wall, the Lions went on a 31-10 run over the final 17:50 of the game, taking their first lead of the game on Cisco’s free throw.
“I couldn’t be happier right now,” junior point guard Brian Barbour said. “Just coming back from down 16 at half, not shooting well, and just digging down and getting one done—it’s huge.”
Cisco couldn’t get his first free throw to drop with the game tied at 45, but his teammates were not worried.
“We do this pressure free throw drill every day before games,” Barbour said. “And we have to make 10 straight. It seems like every time we make eight or nine in a row, it’s Mark at the line. So I had plenty of confidence in him.”
“I also miss the first one to screw us over in the drill,” Cisco said with a laugh. “But I always make the second one.”
Tuesday night, that was all he needed. Cisco finished with a game-high 14 points to go with eight rebounds.
“I thought it was a breakthrough game for him [Cisco],” head coach Kyle Smith said. “He gave us what we needed in a really tough, hard-fought game. He gave us some big buckets. He’s a big body under the basket, and he’s a good rebounder. We ran some stuff for him late down on the block, and he delivered.”
The win gave Columbia its first six-game winning streak since the 1981-1982 season.
With only one off-day after games on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and two cross-country flights in the last week, questions lingered about the Lions’ stamina. Yet despite the lack of rest, the Lions turned a game that had the makings of a blowout into a nail-biter down the stretch with a stirring 22-3 run midway through the second half.
“I knew it would be tough, just because of the travel and the time change,” Smith said. “But we somehow snuck it out. It was great.”
“We were still sluggish in the first half and not really mentally there,” Barbour said. “In the second half, we really picked it up. We started being like, ‘Enough was enough. We’ve got to punch back now.’”
Trailing 45-43 with 3:13 remaining, Cisco muscled his way to the basket and banked it in to tie the game. He then came up big on the other end, blocking a Crusader shot and grabbing the rebound. A three-pointer from Barbour went in-and-out on the next possession, drawing a gasp from the home crowd. After a Holy Cross turnover on the other end and a Barbour trey that came up short, the Crusaders held for the last shot. A floater in the lane didn’t fall, and Cisco was fouled while grabbing the defensive rebound, setting up the last-second drama at the free throw line.
Offensively, the Light Blue found the early going tough, shooting only 16.1 percent in the first half. Columbia, whose strong shooting from beyond the arc has in part fueled its winning streak, started cold from downtown before freshman guard Noah Springwater and senior guard Steve Egee knocked down consecutive treys to cut the lead to seven. Holy Cross responded with a 10-1 run to open up a 30-14 halftime lead.
The Crusaders’ defense was smothering in the opening period, holding Columbia to 5-for-31 from the floor and blocking four shots. Holy Cross shot 50 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes, led by eight first-half points from the team’s leading scorer, senior guard Devin Brown. He did not score after the break, however, as Columbia held Holy Cross to 15 second-half points.
Part of that turnaround came in the post, where the Lions’ big men out-rebounded the Crusaders 21-17, recorded four blocks, and took an 8-4 edge in points in the paint after Holy Cross outscored the Lions 14-2 down low in the first half. Freshman forward Alex Rosenberg, who finished with nine points, pulled down a game-high 15 rebounds.
“I made better moves in the second half, and I played better defensively in the second half,” Cisco said. “So did John [Daniels] and everyone else who is in the paint with me.”
Sophomore guard Meiko Lyles, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Week, was held scoreless in the first half after taking only one shot. Lyles came into the night having shot over 82 percent from three-point range in California. He knocked down his first attempt from downtown of the second half and then converted two free throws two possessions later to spark a 15-0 run that brought the Lions within one.
Rosenberg hit a three-pointer with just under nine minutes to go to make it 38-34. After a Holy Cross miss on the other end, Cisco hit the offensive glass after a Rosenberg trey rimmed out. Rosenberg converted the put-back and got fouled on the play, forcing a Crusader time-out with 8:21 to go. He knocked down the ensuing free throw to cut the lead to 38-37. Seven of Rosenberg’s nine points came after halftime.
“He can make a three, he can drive and kick, he can make a shot,” Smith said of his freshman big man. “So we spread out the floor and, even though he wasn’t shooting well, it was pretty darn good. He was big on the boards, too.”
Cisco knotted the score at 41 with a lay-in in transition, and Rosenberg got to the basket for a contested lay-up a few possessions later to make it 43-43 with 4:28 remaining.
The Lions entered the game on a five-game winning streak, having swept all three contests of the Loyola Marymount Centennial Classic over the weekend—including a 69-61 decision over the hosts, who had beaten UCLA and St. Louis , both ranked at the time.
This win was keyed not by offense but by defense, as the Lions held their opponents to 26.1 percent shooting in the second half and 38.3 percent for the night.
“I think our calling card this year—funny for me—is going to be defense,” Smith, an offensive guru, said with a chuckle.
To keep the winning streak alive, though, Columbia will need to show more of the same.
“If you’re going to be good, you’re going to take everyone’s best shot,” Smith said. “They knew we had won five in a row. They knew we had gotten some big wins. So they came in, and they really went after us.”
Columbia hosts Long Island at 2 p.m. on Saturday in Levien Gym before taking an 18-day break for final exams and the holidays.