Men’s basketball lost two close games by a combined seven-point margin this weekend against Yale and Brown to remain winless on the road in Ivy League play.
The Lions (6-15, 3-5 Ivy) were swept in New Haven and Providence against Yale (11-13, 4-4 Ivy), falling 88-84 and Brown (11-10, 4-4 Ivy), coming up short 91-88 in overtime. The team is no longer tied for third place in the Ancient Eight standings, instead dropping into a tie for fifth.
In Friday’s game against Yale, the Light Blue was within two points of the Bulldogs, trailing 86-84 with 14 seconds left on the clock after sophomore guard Mike Smith hit a layup. But Yale’s Alex Copeland hit two critical free throws and Smith’s layup attempt was blocked by the Bulldogs’ Trey Phills with seven seconds to go, and the Lions were unable to overcome the deficit, eventually falling 88-84.
Despite the loss, head coach Jim Engles felt the team performed well offensively, particularly in the hostile environment of John J. Lee Amphitheater. Shooting 52.3 percent from the floor for the contest and 61.3 percent for the first half, the offense, as per the story of the season, was not the problem for the Lions. But defensively, despite improvements and the inclusion of an effective 1-2-2 zone three-quarters’ court press, the Light Blue struggled against Yale.
The Lions began slowly against the Bulldogs, falling behind by 11 points early in the first half after Yale’s Miye Oni hit a three pointer to put the Bulldogs in front 23-12 with 12:50 remaining in the first half. After a quick Smith layup, Engles replaced the sophomore with first-year guard Gabe Stefanini, subsequently energizing the Lions.
In a two-minute stretch, Stefanini scored 10 points, including two threes, and after senior guard Nate Hickman nailed a trey, the Lions took their first lead of the game at 32-31. They would hold onto that lead going into the break, up 47-45 at the half.
But a resurgent Yale responded at the onset of the second half, taking a 57-49 lead after a 12-2 run with just over 16 minutes to go in the period.
After falling behind 67-56 with 11:58 remaining, Engles once again turned to Stefanini, who tallied two assists an a layup to cap off an 11-1 run to cut the deficit to just one point at 68-67 with 9:00 remaining in the contest. But that was the closest the Lions would come, as back-and-forth action ultimately put the game just out of reach for the Light Blue.
Stefanini, whose energy off the bench sparked two Lions’ runs, led the team with 17 points, including a perfect 3-for-3 from three-point range. Coupled with a 20-point performance against Brown the next day, Stefanini’s emergence as a potent scoring threat off the bench served as a silver lining for Engles and company.
“[Gabe]‘s been terrific,” Engles said after the Brown game. “He’s really stepped up and he’s made some huge plays for us. He’s done a good job. Some of the things he did tonight were really special.”
Against the Bears, the Lions came out firing on the second day of a back-to-back, jumping out to a 17-7 lead on 87.5 percent shooting from the floor after the first media timeout.
Again, the offense led the way for the Light Blue, as two three-pointers from junior forward Lukas Meisner and another three from junior guard Quinton Adlesh sparked the Lions early on. But in the nearly 15-minute stretch that followed, the Lions scored just 12 points. That 7-for-8 start seemed distant by halftime, as the Light Blue finished 4-for-22 for the rest of the half.
Trailing by seven coming out of the locker room, the Lions stayed within firing range of the Bears. At the 16:27 mark, with Columbia down by six, Stefanini once again returned and reenergized the Light Blue.
Stefanini hit two-of-three free throws at the line after being fouled on a three-point shot and Stefanini hit a jumper, finding Smith on a steal to tie the game at 50-50 with 13:24 to go.
Brown went on a brief run, but a Meisner three with 9:45 remaining put the Lions ahead by two—a lead they would not relinquish until the 3:05 mark, when Brown’s Tamenang Choh hit a layup to take a 73-71 lead.
Regulation came down to the final shot, as the Lions were in danger of losing yet another close game in heartbreaking fashion. But Smith stopped the bleeding with a step-back three with a defender in his face to tie the game and send the contest into overtime. Engles noted that while the play was originally called for Adlesh, Smith improvised and hit a good shot.
In the overtime period, the Lions possessed a three-point lead with 13 seconds to go. But after Brown’s Brandon Anderson made one-of two at the stripe, the Bears’ Choh corralled an offensive rebound and outletted to Obi Okolie, who hit a three to put Brown ahead for good.
It was another heartbreaking loss for the Lions, who have grown accustomed to falling in painful fashion this season, with seven losses under five points. Nonetheless, the Lions were in each contest, and despite his frustration, Engles was pleased with his team’s effort on the offensive end. The team looks forward to rematches with Penn and Princeton this weekend.
Play against the Quakers and the Tigers will take place on Friday and Saturday at Levien Gymnasium, with tipoff at 7 p.m. on both nights.