Just three weeks ago, Princeton looked like a legitimate contender for the Ivy League title. The Tigers had blown out two of their first three conference opponents, they had won seven of nine D-I games overall, and a team full of shooters gave them the league’s most fearsome offense.
Just a game and a half ago, Princeton looked to be getting back on track. True, the Tigers had lost four straight games, but they had found their shooting stroke to lead Cornell by 22 points midway through the second half. Given the results around the league, they were about to pull back into a tie for fourth place with a good chance to get back to the conference tournament, where who knows what would happen?
Then, disaster: Cornell cut Princeton’s lead to single digits, then to zero digits, and eventually won in triple overtime. A day later, the Tigers were buried under an avalanche of Columbia shots from the start, falling behind by 23 points at halftime. All in all, over 45 consecutive minutes of game time Princeton was outscored by 51 points — by two teams it had beaten by a combined 55 points one month earlier.
Columbia (4-6) cruised to an 85-60 victory at Levien Gym on Saturday night, remaining very much in the thick of the Ivy League playoff race. Princeton (3-7) now stands alone in seventh place with a six-game losing streak — its longest since 2009.
“We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. We’re in a bad place,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “In this league, you’ve got to take away the other team’s strengths. We haven’t been able to do that, last night with transition and them making threes, and tonight with threes.”
The Lions entered Saturday’s game with their own struggles, having lost three straight games and suffered a comeback defeat of their own on Friday. But they reversed that momentum in a hurry, hitting six of their first seven three-pointers to jump out to a 30-9 lead. Quinton Adlesh hit two early en route to a 4-for-6 performance, including a 26-footer that led to the first of three Mitch Henderson timeouts in the first half. Lukas Meisner was one rebound shy of a double-double by halftime.
But the hottest Lion was Kyle Castlin, who scored a career-high 22 points. Most of those came on long jumpers, including 4-5 shooting from beyond the arc. “He was on fire today. I was going to have to start running some sets for him,” Columbia coach Jim Engles said. “He especially did a good job when they went to the 1-3-1 [zone], Kyle singlehandedly basically was able to control the change in tempo, because he was able to make shots.”
— Columbia Basketball (@CULionsMBB) February 18, 2018
Given Columbia’s hot shooting (and some fortune — two treys came after Tigers deflected loose balls directly to open shooters), Princeton was probably doomed to lose regardless. But the visitors didn’t help themselves with their defense: Their pick-and-roll coverage, an issue all season, left big men wide open for uncontested dunks twice. And their transition defense was uncharacteristically suspect, showing the wear of a weekend that included three overtimes, a four-plus-hour bus ride and a 3:30 am arrival in NYC.
The Tigers started as cold as Columbia was hot, going 0-13 on three-pointers in the first half. They couldn’t get much else going either, managing only one assist by halftime (but zero turnovers, in a bizarre box score that also had zero blocks and zero steals). Princeton found its stroke after halftime, hitting seven of 15 outside shots, led by 12 points and eight rebounds from Amir Bell,
But it still couldn’t get stops — every mini-run was answered by a big play from Castlin, Meisner or Mike Smith, who scored 12 of his 14 points after halftime. Columbia finished with 1.35 points per possession, its highest of the season.
The blowout was Columbia’s first win at home over Princeton since 2009, and only its second win over the Tigers anywhere in that span. It came at a crucial time, vaulting the Lions into a three-way tie for fourth place at 4-6. They stay home for two big games next week, when they host Brown (also in the 4-6 mix) and Yale (a game up at 5-5), which swept Columbia in close games last week.
“That’s a really good win for us right now — something that’s obviously needed, and something we can build off of,” Engles said. “We’re still right in the thick of this, and if we play like that, we can be very dangerous.”
Meanwhile, Princeton is not mathematically eliminated — given chaos around the league, even a 3-1 finish could be enough to sneak into the top half with some help. But its defense looks fundamentally broken, and familiar opponents are picking apart its weaknesses on both ends. The Tigers may be only one game out of playoff position, but the gap feels a lot further, especially with three teams to chase.
“We’ve been fortunate with some of the breaks in the league, and we’re right there, we have an opportunity,” Henderson said. “We had a nice spirited discussion led by our seniors and juniors right now, and hopefully we can see something from that.”