Columbia women’s basketball advanced to 10-4 after losing only once in its last 10 games, already exceeding the win total of the 2018-2019 season.
On the Friday before finals week, as women’s basketball geared up to face Davidson College, coach Megan Griffith predicted a “bloodbath” finale to non-conference games. As the Lions staged a tight second-half comeback against the disciplined Davidson team to win 63-60, the game was far away from being a bloodbath. The Light Blue returned to basketball action on Dec. 21 with a 56-point bang on the New Jersey Institute of Technology, cruising through its four-game stretch at Levien Gymnasium.
The Lions split their Tennessee trip after Christmas with a 72-51 loss at Vanderbilt and a 75-65 win at Tennessee State. In its last game heading into Ivy play, against Mercer, the Light Blue took a 77-48 victory, its second 30-point-plus win after finals. The Lions opened conference competition against Cornell with a fourth-quarter comeback, coach Griffith’s first Ivy League opener victory.
Junior guard Riley Casey made two triples in her second game back from injury to propel the Lions’ comeback against Davidson. The Lions were down by 7 points at the start of the third quarter, but a 7-0 run at the beginning and a 6-0 run at the end of the quarter narrowed the gap to just 1 point going into the fourth.
Senior captain Janiya Clemmons scored a season-high 20 points, including 7 in the final six minutes. Griffith said that having Clemmons’ leadership was like having a second coach on the floor. This game was the second explosive fourth quarter for Clemmons after the win against Army on Nov. 23, in which she scored 9 of her 15 total points in the fourth, showing her consistency and composure in tight matchups.
Sophomore point guard Mikayla Markham, first-year guard Abbey Hsu, and Clemmons had three steals apiece; in total, the Lions forced Davidson to turn over the ball 20 times and scored 11 points off of those turnovers. Commenting on the tough defense against Davidson’s organized offense, Griffith said, “Everybody that played had a turnover. … They haven’t seen a team that quite give them as much pressure as Drexel yet this year, and so when we watched the game tape, I was like, ‘This is exactly how we are gonna play.’”
The Lions continued their defensive pressure after 11 days of break, limiting NJIT to just 14 field goals with 29.2 percent shooting and 24 turnovers. NJIT took 48 shots, only eight more than Columbia’s 40 field goals. By allowing just 43 points, the Lions forced their opponents to the lowest score since the 2014-2015 season, when the Light Blue last played NJIT and won 45-38.
On the other hand, Columbia played one of the best offensive games in program history, scoring 99 points, the highest against a Division I team in more than 30 years. Columbia’s 13-0 run in the second quarter extended the team’s lead to 33 points, putting down a period on the game early on. The Light Blue’s 29 assists were a manifestation of the team’s chemistry and its faith in Griffith’s offensive system. Hsu led the team with 18 points, making 7 of 8 shots she took, including four triples, her most since Nov. 15 at Buffalo.
With this win, the Lions extended their winning streak to six.
“It only makes you feel better when you win,” Griffith said after the Davidson game when the win-streak was at five. “But the main thing is not to get overly confident. … In the locker room, I asked them, ‘You want the ugly or the good first?’ They wanted the ugly first, and the ugly was a lot longer than the good.”
Indeed, the Lions’ Tennessee road trip after Christmas started with a wake-up call. Vanderbilt snatched the Lions’ winning streak with a 21-point blowout. Columbia, after forcing two consecutive 20-plus turnover games, yielded 23 turnovers itself, and Vanderbilt took full advantage of it, scoring 24 points off of those turnovers alone. Columbia’s slow start allowed the Commodores to be up by 17 by halftime, and the Lions struggled to find their rhythm throughout the game, losing in every quarter of it.
What happened overnight was an impressive rebound of the team’s discipline and morale. Against Tennessee State, Columbia was up by 16 at the half, a 33-point turnaround from Sunday’s halftime against Vanderbilt. Sophomore forward Sienna Durr brushed off her 8-point afternoon against the Commodores and led the Lions in scoring with 20.
Although TSU fought back in the second half to get as close as 4 points to the Light Blue, Columbia ended the game with a 8-2 run on aggressive attack in the paint and focused defense that caused TSU to miss five shots in the final minute.
The Lions returned home after the New Year and tipped off 2020 with a 23-point first quarter explosion against Mercer. Last season, Mercer pulled the game to within 2 points in the last minute with a 13-1 run, and Columbia only barely escaped by 4 points on a pair of free throws by Casey, who scored 24 points in that game. On Jan. 4, however, the recently-recovered guard wasn’t in as good a form as she was last season, going 1-of-4 from the floor and contributing 5 points. Markham was the hero of the game with 16 points and six assists, draining five three-pointers, along with four steals.
The team as a whole played its game, beating Mercer in every quarter and pressuring the Bears to become the fourth team this season to score below 50 points against the Lions. At the beginning of the season, Griffith marked defense as the primary area of improvement of the program, and so far this season, on average, the Lions have allowed opponents to score 7.5 fewer points, achieve 2.1 fewer field goals, and give up 2.9 more turnovers than last season.
The Light Blue marched into Ivy play on Jan. 18 against New York rival Cornell. The thriller ended in Columbia’s explosive 28-15 fourth quarter to secure a comeback from down as much as 7 in the game, and the Lions went up 1-0 in the conference for the first time since 2014. Columbia went 10-for-16 from the field in the fourth and made five of its 10 three-pointers in the final quarter. Hsu and Durr carried the offense with 17 points apiece, combined for four field goals beyond the arc in the fourth, and Hsu earned her second Rookie of the Week award after hitting a career-high five three-pointers in the game.
Sophomore forward Lilian Kennedy started for the second game this season and shot 66.7 percent in those two games, averaging 10.5 points for the Lions. She contributed 9 points on Saturday afternoon, including 7 straight in the fourth quarter to spur the comeback.
The Lions also out-rebounded their opponent for the ninth time this season; their +14.3 rebound advantage ranks third in the NCAA.
Columbia seeks to continue its momentum on both sides of the floor in the rematch against Cornell on Jan. 25. Tip-off is at 1 p.m., and the Lions look to sweep the series. The game will be broadcast simultaneously on ESPN Plus.