Columbia’s season-opening seven game road stretch ends in a heartbreaking loss

The coaches didn’t quite know what to make of the Albany Great Danes’ 86-82 win over the Columbia Lions.

There was the first half, where Columbia scored 0.71 points per possession (ppp) to Albany’s 0.81, where offense was like players trying to rub rocks together to find a spark and failing. Then there was the second half, where the Lions scored 1.43 ppp but gave up 1.54 to the Danes, who scored 45 points in the final 12 minutes of the game.

“That was the weirdest,” Lions coach Jim Engles said after the game, trailing off. “No defense being played in the second half and no offense being played in the first half.”

Columbia came out crisp on defense in the first half, cutting off easy driving lanes and fighting in the paint against the Danes, who love to work inside-out. While the shots may not have been falling, the effort was there, with Jaron Faulds getting Columbia’s first bucket inside and looking like a threat.

Albany was outmuscled for the first half inside, but still took the lead with 12 minutes to go. The Danes upped the lead to eight, but Columbia came back twice to tie.

Out of the locker room in the second half, the Lions came out scorching hot.

“In the second half,” Will Brown said, “first seven or eight minutes, we played no defense. None. And they made 10 of their first 12 shots. So you gotta credit them.”

The game, which was a rough go all around, turned into a barnburner, a game that included Brown receiving a technical foul two minutes into a frustrating second half for his Great Danes.

Albany found the way back against an opponent that had them flummoxed and, according to both the head coach and players, gambling on defense.

“We just had to realize there were 12 minutes in the game,” Albany guard David Nichols said. “We just had to chip away and get consecutive stops together, and find a way to get back in the game.”

Albany got Travis Charles (13 points) and Devonte Campbell going (10 points) at the line, with the help of Greg Stire (5 points, team-leading 10 rebounds), who added interior rebounding and toughness. Joe Cremo (25 points) jumped into the fray.

Mike Smith (career-high 27 points) and Jaron Faulds (career-high 17 points) scored all 16 of the Lions points in the final five and a half minutes.

Despite the Lions’ best efforts, the Great Danes came out on top after Nichols hit a three-pointer from the right wing with 26 seconds left in the game.

So close for Columbia, a team that was playing its kind of game—shooting high percentages from outside the arc, bringing the defense out to allow players to drive, and playing at a quick pace.

“We’ve shown that we can play with some pretty good teams,” Engles said. “Now it’s a matter of getting some defensive stops, or make some plays, or make a free throw here or there, and take control of the game.”

Getting those stops seems tricky for Columbia. As defenders, the Lions were a solid unit at stopping penetration, but unable to put pressure on Albany, especially once the Great Danes started playing more physically. In terms of strength, Albany was able to impose its will not just in the paint, but on the perimeter in stretches.

“I think Albany took advantage around the basket,” Engles said. “On the road, you have to get stops around the basket and keep people off the line, and we didn’t do that.”

Nichols (29 points) tied his second-highest point total in an Albany uniform, while Columbia’s Smith, a sophomore, hit his career high. Freshmen Faulds and Gabe Stefanini also stood out with career highs of 17 and 11 points, respectively. Columbia’s Lukas Meisner had 9 points and 11 total rebounds.

What matters is the record, and Columbia falls to 1-6 while Albany improves to 8-1. Columbia, a young squad, has a path to improvement after its long journey.

“Brutal stretch here,” Engles said. “Seven games where we have been in every game, we just haven’t been able to make a play or put ourselves in position to put ourselves on the good end.”

On his standout players, Engles said, “I thought Mike definitely played his best game of the year from an offensive standpoint.”

And on Stefanini, he said, “Gabe is going to be a very good player for us. He’s struggled as a freshman with the day-to-day work that goes into being a Division I basketball player. He’s learning how to play hard consistently and how to play hard everyday in practice. And what you saw tonight is the ability, [the reason] why we recruited him. I think Gabe is why the second half opened up for us.”

“But sometimes freshmen, it takes them a little bit longer to figure out how to play. We have a relatively young squad. All these experiences are very good for them, but you have to win to gain some confidence.”

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