Approximately two hours before most of men’s basketball’s games, first-year guard Gabe Stefanini is on the court, working on his shot long before his teammates join him for warm-ups.
Stefanini hoists up shot after shot, having worked out his routine before the Lions’ contests so that he can sneak in every extra minute before the start of a game, preparing for the action to come.
“I try to focus on my technique, making sure I get my feet right,” Stefanini said of his pregame ritual.
This season, Stefanini has played the critical role of the Lions’ sixth man during Ancient Eight play. The role of the sixth man is to be the first man off the bench and to instantly insert energy into the lineup when needed.
“I just try to come in and make a play, and get a steal or a deflection,” Stefanini said after the Brown victory. “I just try to be really aggressive on the ball.”
Stefanini has more than delivered on that expectation, according to head coach Jim Engles, who has repeatedly praised the first-year’s work ethic and play this season.
“Gabe has been terrific for us,” Engles said. “It’s been fun to watch him, because he’s really starting to get it, and you’re starting to see it.”
Stefanini grew up in Bologna, Italy, and arrived at Morningside Heights with a vengeance as a key contributor in his first year at Columbia. Despite having played just one season, Stefanini’s confidence has reached a high point as he has embraced his role on the team, the first-year noted.
In what Engles cited as a “[generally] difficult transition from high school to college in [any player’s] first season,” Stefanini has otherwise excelled, scoring in double figures five times in Ivy League play thus far.
Demonstrating the capability to take over games at points, the six-foot-three Stefanini is shooting 48.6 percent from three-point land in Ivy League play. Furthermore, he has won Ivy League Rookie of the Week honors twice, and is averaging 16.4 minutes per game in Ancient Eight play.
But as much as Stefanini has excelled in conference play, he—per his own explanation—struggled to adjust to the landscape of college basketball at the beginning of the season.
Growing up in Italy, Stefanini developed a love for basketball at a young age. For as long as he can remember, Stefanini has possessed a passion for the game and has never strayed too far from a basketball.
Stefanini moved to the United States in his junior year of high school and competed at Bergen Catholic High School, where he averaged 18 points per game, was named second team all-state, and carried his team to the state finals in 2017.
Motivated by factors including New York City’s proximity to his adopted New Jersey home and the opportunities that an Ivy League degree offers, Stefanini committed to Columbia on October 10, 2016. After being recruited by assistant coach Jered Czech and Engles, Stefanini’s excitement about playing for the Light Blue motivated him to work even harder to perfect his game.
Despite Stefanini’s optimism entering college, the early stages of the basketball season did not go as planned. Defensively, the accelerated speed and strength of Division I guards proved challenging for Stefanini.
Additionally, he struggled with turning the ball over and had to dedicate extra practice to tightening his handle of the basketball. In Columbia’s first three games against Villanova, Longwood, and Penn State, Stefanini averaged 10 minutes per game and scored only 3.3 points per game.
“When I first got here, things didn’t go as good as I would have expected them [to go],” Stefanini said. “You just have to be locked in all 40 minutes, and that’s not easy to do.”
Overcoming these early struggles, Stefanini registered 21 minutes of action and posted his first double-digit scoring outing against Albany in early December. Despite Columbia’s 86-82 defeat, he scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the floor. In addition to his efficient scoring, he logged seven rebounds and three assists. This all-around productivity paved the way for his success later in the season.
Stefanini’s minutes have increased from 13.4 minutes per game to 16.4 minutes per game in Ivy League play, boosting his confidence and production on both ends of the court. In conference, he averages 9.0 points per game, 2.5 rebounds per game, and 1.17 steals per game.
Stefanini recorded his career high of 20 points in a 91-88 overtime road loss against Brown in early February. Despite the team falling short, Stefanini’s performance enhanced his individual confidence and solidified his role as the team’s sixth man. Facing off against Brown again last Friday night, Stefanini scored 19 points off the bench, lifting his team to a 89-82 victory. In his 27 minutes of action, Stefanini also produced on the defensive end, registering three steals and one block.
Engles heaped praise on Stefanini after each contest, noting that the first-year’s energy kept the team in the game.
Much of Stefanini’s success can be attributed to the help of his friend and mentor sophomore guard Mike Smith, who leads Columbia in scoring. Covering Smith, one of the Ivy League’s elite guards, in practice has allowed Stefanini to work on his defensive efficiency and better prepare for opposing teams’ star ball-handlers.
“I love playing against him [in practice],” Stefanini said of Smith. “If he ever gets in foul trouble like he did against Brown, I feel like I have that extra chip on my shoulder to help make up for that.”
Stefanini and Smith also work well together in tandem on the offensive end. With Smith being the Lions’ primary ball handler and assist leader, Stefanini is able to move without the ball and find open space for high-percentage shots.
As Columbia heads into the final weekend of the regular season, the Lions will look for continued production off the bench from Stefanini. Should the Light Blue qualify for the Ivy League tournament and other postseason action, Stefanini’s scoring and defensive activity will prove to be a vital factor in the team’s success.
For now, however, Stefanini is focused on the task at hand: Friday night’s game against Dartmouth.