It was not pretty, but it was effective. Columbia defeated Brown 89-82 on Friday night at Levien Gymnasium despite not scoring a basket from the field for the final 7:33 of the game.
The Lions (8-16, 5-6) shot 19-21 from the free throw line during the second half to help pull out the victory over the visiting Bears (11-13, 5-7) and pull one game ahead of Brown and Cornell in the race for the fourth and final spot in the Ivy League playoff.
“It’s a huge win,” Jim Engles said. “We knew how important it was. Now every win and every loss there is going to be definite separation of teams here. So right now if we continue to play the way we’re supposed to play we’ll get where we want to go.”
Columbia’s final points from the field came on a Mike Smith layup with 7:33 remaining. The basket pushed the Lions’ lead to 15, 73-58. CU would score it’s final 16 points from the free throw line, as the Lions went 16-18 from the line during that stretch.
Smith finished with a team-high 24 points, including 13-14 shooting from the charity stripe in 29 minutes.
“I like to drive anyways, so it was in my favor to do that,” Smith said about the tight whistle. “I got to the free throw line and I think I only missed that last one. So it benefitted me personally.”
The dynamic sophomore’s time on the court was reduced due to first half foul trouble, but freshman Gabe Stefanini stepped up to fill the void. Stefanini scored 19 points on 6-13 shooting and also grabbed 3 steals in 27 minutes.
“I just try to be aggressive, especially starting on the defensive end,” Stefanini said. “If I can get a steal that’s usually what gets me going. I just try to play my game and be as aggressive as I can and help my team win.”
Stefanini and Kyle Castlin were the driving forces behind a 14-0 run that helped the Lions take the lead for good just before halftime. That run happened while Smith and Lukas Meisner were sitting on the bench with two fouls apiece.
“I believe in my teammates,” Smith said. “I believe that if I’m not out there that everybody is capable of doing what they’re capable of doing. Everybody stepped up. We got stops. We made shots. It was good to see for sure.”
Castlin finished with nine points in 26 minutes, including an excellent offensive rebound and put-back layup.
“Getting him back in the rotation he adds a different dimension for our defense and for our offense,” Engles said about Castlin. “I think we’re gelling at the right time.”
Brown, which came into the game with one of the highest free throw rates in the country, shot 34 free throws of its own. (There were 58 made free throws and 49 made field goals in the game.) The backcourt duo of Brandon Anderson — 23 points, 4 assists and 0 turnovers in 32 minutes — and Desmond Cambridge — 26 points, 10 rebounds in 39 minutes — were once again the driving forces for Brown. Columbia’s run before halftime started when Anderson was forced to go to the bench with his second foul. Mike Martin boldly (and smartly) reinserted his sophomore guard into the lineup with 5 minutes remaining in the first half, and while Anderson didn’t pick up a third foul, he wasn’t able to staunch the bleeding.
The victory sets up an important showdown on Saturday night at 8:30 pm for the Lions against visiting Yale. It is Senior Night for Castlin and Nate Hickman. A win would give Columbia exceptional leverage in the chase for the final playoff spot. KenPom currently projects that the Lions will finish 6-8 in the Ivy League and take home the final spot by a game over Brown, Cornell and Princeton. It would be an unexpected, but promising development for a Lions team that has upped its game throughout the season.
“Definitely we’re improving. It’s one of those things where you have selective memory. I was looking at stats on KenPom the other day and I honestly forgot that we were 1-10 to start the season,” Engles said. “We’ve learned a lot over the course of the season and we’re starting to improve.”