When first-year guard Abbey Hsu pulled up and drained her 31st point of the night, Columbia’s lead on Harvard came to 32. In head coach Megan Griffith’s four seasons with the Lions, the team has won only once against the Crimson before Hsu’s explosive night.
The media was stunned in the interview room: The talk centered around Hsu’s lights-out shooting as the best individual performance the reporters had witnessed in their years of covering Columbia basketball.
In fact, there was another young star in the room with Hsu—sophomore forward Sienna Durr, the reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year, shot 7 of 11 from the field to add 20 points to the Lions’ 89-point game. During their time with the Lions, Hsu and Durr combined for 13 20-point games, including two 30-point games. The two underclassmen have become the Light Blue’s offensive engine.
In the Feb. 22 win against Yale, Columbia started five underclassmen, three of whom were first-years. Such a starting lineup was unthinkable in Griffith’s first season, during which the team had a total of three first-year players, none of whom averaged more than 2.5 points per game. The lack of depth on the court led to a monotonous offense, which fed the ball solely to the 6-foot-1-inch forward Camille Zimmerman, CC ’18, to finish more than 20 points a game, putting up a Lions-record 37 shots in the quadruple overtime win against Dartmouth that season. Zimmerman, who later signed with the Minnesota Lynx, averaged less than three minutes of rest that season and played the entire 40 minutes seven times in her senior season.
“I think [my 2016 to 2018] team still wanted to win just as bad as [the current] team, but it’s a little different when you have one dominant force, and she’s older,” Griffith said. “I think that was hard to play alongside her and find your role. … Having one player lead you in almost every statistical category is not probably the best result you want for a team effort.”
Those two teams were built for Zimmerman. Although she was Columbia’s leading scorer at the time and is in the top echelon of players in the Lions’ 35-year history, Griffith admitted that Zimmerman and “any of the [players] on those teams ... would thrive in [today’s] environment so much more.”
For senior captain Janiya Clemmons, this is certainly true. Her growth through the four years is evident: From a first-year guard who averaged 2.4 points, she developed into a consistent starter averaging 12 points in her junior season, after Zimmerman’s departure.
Although Clemmons is the only senior on the team, she says that the responsibility of leading the team is spread out across the years. During tough moments, she said, the team doesn’t only look to her to score—scoring abilities are there in all five players on the court, unlike during the years when Zimmerman had to carry the majority of the scoring load. But Clemmons is determined to serve as a positive energy source to cheer the team on, to make sure that everyone stays focused during tough possessions.
“[Clemmons] fixes me up when I’m down. She puts confidence in me,” Hsu said. “She pushes me when I need it. For playing one-on-ones, she makes it as competitive as possible.”
As leading scorers, Durr and Hsu know that they need to be at their best during important moments. Both pointed to the importance of trusting their teammates in those moments rather than just vying to prove themselves; because everyone is versatile on the offensive end, they do not usually feel as much pressure as Zimmerman might have felt. Everyone can have hot hands, Clemmons said, and that’s the trick to the Ivy League’s best offense.
Neither Durr nor Hsu specifically focused on getting personal recognition by the league; rather, as Durr puts it, the Rookie of the Year award was a product of her hard work in leading the team to victory. In some sense, the coaching staff is more worried about the award than the players themselves, using it as a method to push the two players beyond their best.
For Hsu especially, who has just started her journey, her destination is still very much unknown. This makes it even more important for her to concentrate on daily experiences, to learn from everywhere. Hsu listed her two big goals as taking a more robust leadership load on her shoulders and becoming a kaleidoscope on offense. Griffith nudges her one step forward to become a two-way player.
“She’s trying to figure out everything, like scouting, positioning, footwork,” Griffith said. “She’s so locked in on all those small things, and it’s so rare that a young player cares about the details like that. … She just wants to be an elite player [on] both ends of the floor.”
When discussing why they chose the Lions, Clemmons, Durr, and Hsu all spoke of “family.” In fact, Griffith would describe her relationship with the players as “family” also. Griffith believes “trust” to play a key role in propelling one forward in life, which is why it is a culture she tries to implement with the Light Blue.
Since Zimmerman’s graduation, she and Griffth continue to talk about basketball and life. Zimmerman has become part of Griffith’s “sisterhood here at Columbia.”
“[Zimmerman] really invested in her relationships here. … Because she was older, she probably got to that a little quicker. The mortality of her career was in front of her, whereas these guys have a couple more years,” Griffith said, comparing Zimmerman to Durr and Hsu. “That’s the kind of coach I want to be. I want to be involved in your life and help and support you, and help you get wherever you want to go.”
Griffith said she has a lot of expectations looking into the future with this young team, but coaching a young team comes with difficulties in the present. At times, the young Lions can get lost in the adversity, but they have gradually learned to handle downs as well as enjoy the ups. For Durr and Hsu, along with first-years forward Kaitlyn Davis and point guard Carly Rivera, everything is in “new territory,” as Griffith puts it. The Lions securing their first winning season since 2009-10 during their first season with the new recruits is a glimpse at an incoming winning culture.
Hsu has so far four Rookie of the Week awards, and Davis had her first last week when Hsu was not in her best form.
“They wanted to create,” Griffith said. The team is hungry for a title, and more importantly, it is much deeper than the Lions back in 2016.
“When I came back to Columbia, my whole goal was to build a championship program,” Griffith said. “Championship program doesn’t just mean championships. It means championship behavior, it means focusing on the process, knowing that you have a response to anything that gets thrown in your way and that dictates the outcome.
“I have really high expectations for us, but I’m not going to get so focused on ‘We’ve got to win a title next year, we gotta do that this year. To me, that comes when we handle all the small stuff.’”
The Lions are currently en route to the Ivy League Tournament, their first since 2010.
“Don’t put us in that position to play that championship game because we’re going to win it,” Clemmons said.