It was a spectacle in Levien Gymnasium on Saturday night.
The 2,442 fans filling the stands witnessed the Lions’ most stunning second-half collapse of the season, as the Columbia men’s basketball team let a 21-point second-half lead slip away to ultimately fall, 59-58, to Yale. It was yet another instance of Lion late-game errors’ costing the team a win.
“It’s been a bit of an Achilles’ heel, but I still think it’s better than being down 20 and making the rally,” head coach Kyle Smith said. “But it hurts more this way.”
Columbia displayed its dominance for the first 30 minutes of the game, taking advantage of its scoring opportunities and controlling the tempo. The Lions headed into halftime with a seven-point lead, and a second-half surge pushed the margin to 20 with 9:56 remaining.
That was when things began to go downhill.
For the first 30 minutes, the Light Blue shot 61.8 percent from the field—more than double Yale’s 31.6 percent shooting—and outrebounded the Bulldogs 23-13.
But in the final 10, it was a complete role reversal as Yale went on a 26-7 run. The visitors shot 64.7 percent compared to the Lions’ meager 25 percent, and outrebounded the Light Blue 14-6.
Smith cited Duke’s 85-84 upset of North Carolina last week—in which the Blue Devils came back from a 10-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining—as an example of how even the best of teams suffer from late-game woes.
But for the Lions, falling apart under pressure late in the game seems to be a recurring issue.
“We can practice against press all we want, but it’s hard to simulate game situations,” Smith said.
In those last 10 minutes on Saturday, Yale switched to a full-court press and suddenly the Lions were cold on the offensive end. At the same time, the Lion defense faltered in the face of Yale’s growing momentum, in large part due to senior guard/forward Reggie Willhite’s 24 points and seven steals.
While it was certainly the most heartbreaking loss for the Light Blue so far, Saturday was by no means the first time Columbia saw its success fall apart in the final minutes of a game.
Against Penn and Princeton in the opening weekend of league play, the Lions gave up second-half leads and were unable to stage successful comebacks. Two weeks later in Ithaca, the Light Blue fought back from a 14-point deficit to tie the Big Red twice, but failed to take the lead each time.
According to Smith, the Lions’ downfall in the second half was a result of both mistakes by the Light Blue and an increased push by the Bulldogs.
“I think it cuts both ways,” Smith said. “They gave a great effort. I was more disappointed with our defense—just blown coverages. I understand getting scored on, but we didn’t sort out defensive transition.”
Moving past these problems will require the Lions to redefine their game mentality, a point Smith has stressed throughout the season.
“I think that’s part of getting over the hump, changing the culture—that we deserve to win and it’s OK for Columbia to be good,” the second-year head coach said.
Even with the second-half debacle, the Light Blue still had a chance to beat the Bulldogs with three seconds left when senior forward Blaise Staab stepped up to the charity line for two free throws, needing just one to tie and two to take the lead.
Even if Staab had not missed both free throws, the Lions would still have had to face the fact that they let their double-digit lead disappear.
“Two foul shots—sometimes those go, sometimes they don’t,” junior guard Brian Barbour said. “We should have never let it get to that situation in the first place.”
The pain of Saturday’s loss was made all the worse with the knowledge that the Lions were fully capable of beating the Bulldogs, who sit in second place in the conference with only two losses.
But for Smith and players, that pain acts as motivation never to let a game end in a similar fashion again.
“We’ve got to do things better and ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Smith said. “That pain—you should feel it.”
The Lions’ next shot at breaking their habit of second-half collapses will be this weekend when they travel to Princeton and Penn to begin the final seven games of the season.